‘Kangaroo court’ has a peculiarly American past

What does U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise's hashtag #KangarooCourt – a nickname for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump – even mean?

A few weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana, gave the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump a nickname, using the hashtag #KangarooCourt in a tweet. It’s an evocative phrase, even if you’re not sure what it means, and kangaroo itself is, for English, an unusual word.

Kangaroo doesn’t look like many other English words because it comes from the indigenous Australian language Guugu Yimithirr, although it took scholars a long time to accept that. Even now the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t quite buy it, granting only that kangaroo is “stated to have been the name in an Australian Aboriginal language.”  

The doubt arises because British explorers recorded different words for the same animal. In 1770, Captain James Cook landed in northern Australia and wrote down “Kangooroo or Kanguru.” John Hunter mapped land near modern-day Sydney and learned that the word was “patagorong.” Lancelot Threlkeld, a missionary working north of Sydney, heard “mo-a-ne.” Rather than drawing the obvious conclusion, that these are three different words because they come from three different languages, the Oxford English Dictionary prefers to consider the matter unsettled. 

Linguists and lexicographers agree, though, that the word’s popular folk etymology is wrong. The story holds that when Cook arrived, he pointed at an animal and asked, “What is this?” His interlocutor responded “kangaroo,” meaning “I don’t understand,” which Cook took to be the animal’s name. 

Despite the Australian antecedents of kangaroo, the kangaroo court was originally an American institution. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a mock court” or one “characterized by irresponsible, unauthorized, or irregular status or procedures.” No one knows precisely where the term comes from – it might have originated during the lawless days of the California gold rush, when miners had to create their own court system to adjudicate disputes over claim jumping. Another theory speculates that these courts earned the name “kangaroo” because they “jump to conclusions.” 

The term may have been the name for a game. An 1853 book describes an early “kangaroo court” as entertainment, a mock trial that allowed the people of a tiny Texas town to pretend to be powerful lawyers and judges. Early kangaroo courts were found in 19th-century prisons, in which inmates would lay down rules. In the 20th century, such courts have come to be associated with corrupt politicians, such as Joseph Stalin’s “kangaroo courts,” which sentenced millions of people to forced labor or death.

Kangaroo courts may have a silly name, but they are no longer funny.

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