Kangaroo Court
Posted: 14 October 2013 10:50 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I am interested in the origin of Kangaroo court.  I am hoping that someone on this forum has information other than what I’ve already found in various dictionaries and online articles. Since there is no definite origin the speculation directs itself to Australia and kangaroos, since that is the native land of the animals.

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Posted: 14 October 2013 10:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The origin is a bit mysterious, but it’s definitely American in origin.

There’s a bit more to add to the Big List entry, and I’ll try to take on a revision in the next few days. (At the moment I’m thoroughly immersed in Anglo-Saxon laws for an article I’m writing, so it will take me some time to get up to speed with the vagaries of 19th century American frontier justice.) Green’s Dictionary of Slang records the verb to kangaroo, meaning to convict unjustly. But that’s later and undoubtedly comes from kangaroo court.

[ Edited: 14 October 2013 11:09 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 14 October 2013 11:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The origin is entirely guesswork. Type “Kangaroo Court” in google and the first and the third hit (on my machine) are engaged in the possible etymologies.

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Posted: 15 October 2013 02:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The number three hit was this: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/kangaroo-court.html

The natural inclination to want to base the phrase in Australia has led to suggestions that the vacant stares of kangaroos when meeting humans for the first time were mimicked by jury members in court. There’s no documentary evidence to support this, or any other Australian derivation, and it seems highly speculative.

To call this story “speculative” is to give it more credit than it is due.  How kangaroos reacted to their first meeting with humans tens of thousands of years ago is beyond speculation.

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Posted: 15 October 2013 04:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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How kangaroos reacted to their first meeting with humans tens of thousands of years ago is beyond speculation.

Surely not. The Australian wilderness is a big place and there must be thousands of herds (if that’s the word) of kangaroos there that have never seen a human being; so the event of a human seeing kangaroos that have never before seen a human must be a fairly frequent occurrence even today?

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Posted: 15 October 2013 05:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I’m reasonably convinced at this point that the explanation is that both the animal and court are strange or odd creations. The term arose at about the time information about the strange creatures in Australia began widely circulating.

I’ll have more in a few days, but I need to take a trip to the Toronto public library to find a book that isn’t here at U of T.

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Posted: 15 October 2013 10:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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According to the Dictionary of word and phrase origins by William and Mary Morris, the name probably originated at the time when Australia was the penal colony for the British Empire.

I find it interesting, but inexplicable to me, that in my 1943 and 1950 Webster’s New International it is entered as Slang, U.S.  I don’t understand the slang reference.

Regardless, it seems that the true origin shall remain a mystery.

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Posted: 16 October 2013 02:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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The Morris book, while not a bad popular reference in its day, is quite old. A lot has been discovered since it was written.

What constitutes slang can be rather slippery, and there are various definitions of what slang is. My favorite is from J. E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang:

an informal, nonstandard, nontechnical vocabulary composed chiefly of novel-sounding synonyms for standard words and phrases (1:xi)

Lighter includes kangaroo court in HDAS, so presumably he believed it fit the definition. It is informal and nontechnical; it is novel-sounding; and the standard term it replaces is irregularly constituted court, or a construction of that nature.

Addition:

I’ve edited the Big List entry on kangaroo court. I think Barry Popik has found the origin, but we need some evidence to firm it up.

[ Edited: 16 October 2013 04:05 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 16 October 2013 06:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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An excellent discussion, and Barry Popik is a national treasure.

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Posted: 16 October 2013 04:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Dave Wilton - 16 October 2013 02:41 AM

The Morris book, while not a bad popular reference in its day, is quite old. A lot has been discovered since it was written.

What constitutes slang can be rather slippery, and there are various definitions of what slang is. My favorite is from J. E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang:

an informal, nonstandard, nontechnical vocabulary composed chiefly of novel-sounding synonyms for standard words and phrases (1:xi)

Lighter includes kangaroo court in HDAS, so presumably he believed it fit the definition. It is informal and nontechnical; it is novel-sounding; and the standard term it replaces is irregularly constituted court, or a construction of that nature.

Addition:

I’ve edited the Big List entry on kangaroo court. I think Barry Popik has found the origin, but we need some evidence to firm it up.

I appreciate all the information, very interesting.

I agree on The Morris book;perhaps a little outdated.  I purchased a two volume first-edition set a few years ago at a second-hand book store.

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Posted: 17 October 2013 12:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I wonder whether kangaroo (court) referred to a wild and uncontrollable animal, in much the same way as mustang (court) would.  Apparently kangaroos were well known for jumping (as in jumping to conclusions/over hoops/over obstacles*) in the States, so there may just be a connection.  And maybe one of the best known of these courts was at a trial in Kangaroo, hence the name?  We need evidence, as Dave says.

*I’m not implying that these phrases were known in early 19th century America.  They might have been, but it’s not part of my argument.

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Posted: 17 October 2013 02:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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A fascinating and enlightening thread. Thanks, all.

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