To María Solís
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, kangaroo is a noun meaning ‘a large plant-eating marsupial with a long powerful tail and strongly developed hindlimbs that enable it to travel by leaping, found only in Australia and New Guinea’.
This word was first used in English in 1770 by British explorer Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779).
The history of this word began in July 1770, when the HMS Endeavour (the Royal Navy research vessel commanded by Cook) was grounded off the north-eastern coast of Australia. During the weeks when it was being repaired, Captain Cook and his crew, that included astronomer Charles Green and botanist Joseph Banks, made contact with the native population.
In the book An Account of the Voyages ‘undertaken by the order of His present majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere’, which is based on the diaries of Cook and his officers, we can read the description of what was called a kangaroo by the natives:
‘July, Saturday 14, 1770. […] The head, neck, and shoulders, are very small in proportion to the other parts of the body; the tail is nearly as long as the body, thick near the rump, and tapering towards the end: the fore-legs of this individual were only eight inches long, and the hind-legs two and twenty: its progress is by successive leaps or hops, of a great length, in an erect posture; the skin is covered with a short fur, of a dark mouse or grey colour, excepting the head and ears, which bear a slight resemblance to those or a hare. This animal is called by the natives Kanguroo. The next day, our Kanguroo was dressed for dinner, and proved most excellent meat.’
Those natives spoke Guugu Yimithirr, which means something like ‘this kind of language’ or ‘speaking this way’, from guugu ‘language’ and yimi-thirr ‘this way’. It is famous for being the source language of the word we are talking about in this article, and also for its method of describing the arrangements of objects in space based on geographic directions. There are only a few remaining speakers of Guugu Yimithirr which can still be heard in Hopevale in north-eastern Australia. Now the language has undergone simplification under the influence of English.
Almost 50 years after Cook had left the north-eastern coast of Australia, another explorer, Captain Phillip Parker King, was not able to find the same meaning for the word. From the 1850’s up until the present day a myth spread about the meaning of the word kangaroo. Comedians began to say that kangaroo was the phrase for ‘I don’t understand’. But this isn’t true.
So kangaroo is a noun which may have developed in the following way:
gangurru > kanguroo > kangaroo
It can also mean ‘an Australian share, especially in mining, land, or a tobacco company’.
Its plural is kangaroos.
It can also be a verb (regular) which means:
To kangaroo: (informal) (of a car) to move forward or to cause (a car) to move forward with short sudden jerks, as a result of improper use of the clutch.
The word is used in an Australian phrase :
‘To have kangaroos in the (or one’s) top paddock’, which means (informal): to be mad or eccentric.
The phonetic transcription for kangaroo is: |ˌkaŋgəˈruː|
The kongouro from New Holland (or The Kangaroo) by George Stubbs. This painting would have offered Britons a first look at the animal called a kangaroo. The artist had to paint it relying only on verbal accounts, probably made by the botanist Joseph Banks.