The name for this antipodean quadruped dates back to the discovery of Australia by Captain James Cook in 1770. Kangaroo is a borrowing from the Guugu Yimidhirr name for the animal, gangurru. From his journal of 4 August from that year:

The animals which I have before mentioned, called by the Natives Kangooroo or Kanguru.

And Sir Joseph Banks, Cook’s shipboard naturalist, recorded in his journal on 26 August:

The largest was called by the natives kangooroo.

Within a few decades of Cook’s voyage however, others began claiming that the word did not appear in any Aboriginal language. Watkin Tench, a marine accompanying the first shipment of convicts to Australia, wrote in his 1793 Complete Account of the Settlement of Port Jackson:

The large, or grey kanguroo, to which the natives give the name of Pat-ag-a-ran. Note, Kanguroo was a name unknown to them for any animal, until we introduced it.

This probably resulted from confusion about the many different Aboriginal languages in Australia; kangaroo is not the native name in most. It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that Guugu Yimidhirr was identified as the source. As a result, many older references dispute the claim of an Aboriginal source.

There is a story that kangaroo actually meant “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand you” in an Aboriginal tongue and was given as a response when Cook and his men asked, in English, the creature’s name. This is completely fanciful.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Macquarie Dictionary)

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