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What's that you say - 'kangaroo'?

By Nancy M. Kendall / August 30, 2000



Theories abound as to the origin of the name "kangaroo" for Australia's most-famous marsupial. One claims that "kangaroo" was simply an aboriginal word for "jumper." That's easy; it fits. But most etymologists don't support this theory.

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Another, less-popular explanation is that the word may derive from the Australian "kanggariburka," meaning "a woman who bears many children."

The most common explanation, however, credits English explorer Capt. James Cook for the name.

The story goes that in 1770 Captain Cook asked the natives in Queensland, Australia, for the name of this strange, leaping quadruped he had spotted in his travels. Their reply was "kangaroo," which supposedly meant, "I don't understand you."

No one has been able to identify the tribe that Cook encountered, but there were so many undocumented Aboriginal languages that the story could not be completely discounted.

Today, several dictionaries do credit Captain Cook for the word. But according to the American Heritage Dictionary and others, "Kangaroo" originated from "Ganjurru" a word in the Guugu-Yimidhirr language, which was spoken near Cookstown, Northern Queensland. "Ganjurru" means a large black or gray species of kangaroo.

SOURCES: 'The Story Behind the Word,' by Morton Freeman; 'The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,' by Robert Hendrickson; 'The Dictionary of Word Origins,' by Joseph Shipley, 'Word Mysteries and Histories,' by the editors of American Heritage Dictionaries; 'Dictionary of Word Origins,' by Jordan Almond; 'Etymological Dictionary of the English Language,' by Walter Skeat; 'International English Usage,' by Loreto Todd and Ian Hancock.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society