The twist in the tail of the kangaroo is that when the British arrived in New South Wales and began using the word to the Indigenous people there, they had no idea what on earth they were talking about, because it simply wasn’t part of their language. Cooktown, where Banks, Cook and Parkinson recorded ‘kangaroo’, is over 2,750 km from Sydney and the languages spoken in those places are completely different. (Modern scholarship places the in the same language family, which might make them as similar or different as French and Russian (Paris and Moscow are about the equivalent distance apart).)
The locals already had their own word for ‘kangaroo‘, and two more for species of wallaby as well. The British were initially confused as to the relationship between the species, with some writers asserting that the wallaby was simply a smaller or younger or differently coloured kangaroo.
The species recorded are:
• the badagarang (modern reconstructed spelling by Dr Jakelin Troy), the eastern grey kangaroo macropus giganteus, described as a ‘large grey kanguroo’ or simply ‘kangaroo’. From the number and nature of the references, it seems that this species was the most important culturally.
• the banggaray, the swamp wallaby wallabia bicolor, described as ‘small red kangaroo’. (The ‘real’ red kangaroo macropus rufus was not recorded in the Sydney region.)
• the wulaba, the rock wallaby macropodidae petrogale, described as ‘black kangaroo, smaller black kind [of kangaroo]’ and ‘young kangaroo’. This is only word of the three to have entered modern Australian English (and is used internationally at least in those places where Rugby Union is played).
So the British came in, pointed to what the locals regarded as three different animals and uttered this strange new word, among many other strange new words. Not surprisingly, the locals understood it to be a British word meaning something like ‘large, edible quadruped’ and applied it, in turn, to sheep and cows. The British writers seem to imply that the locals couldn’t distinguish between a sheep, a cow and a kangaroo, but the initial mistake was clearly their own. There is a Sydney language word encompassing some combination of animals of different species and different sizes, whether or not it directly corresponds with the English word ‘animal’: ‘The Emu, (Maroang) the Patagorang, and the Menagine, (a small animal) are all named “Goa-long,” which term is supposed to mean an animal’ (Lieutenant Philip Gidley King).
The kangaroo is undoubtedly one of the best-known international symbols of Australia, and is almost certainly the best-known Indigenous Australian word. When I was in Korea, many people asked me where I was from, and when I told them, they said ‘Ah, Australia! Kangaroo!’. (Some said ‘Opera House!’ or ‘Harbour Bridge!’ and one young man said ‘Harry Kewell!’) And it’s not only Koreans. My diary records: ‘I don’t have the “fishbowl” room [a glass-walled classroom immediately next to the entrance to the hagwon (language institute)] for my classes this month. [An American colleague] has most of his classes there. Sometime last week I glanced in and saw him hopping like a kangaroo across the room. I paused just long enough to catch his eye, then moved on. I still haven’t asked him why.’ and ‘I had dinner with an assortment of teachers and students. I sat next to [another American colleague]. He mentioned that he knew the following things about Australia: Ayers Rock, Kylie Minogue, INXS, Dot and the Kangaroo and the Great Barrier Reef.’ There’s more than that here, I can assure you!
(The photos are all over the place because I haven’t figured out WordPress’s editing tools yet.)
[Jakelin Troy, (1994). The Sydney Language, Canberra, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
photos from Wikipedia]