The wellspring of history behind kangaroo etymology
Sometimes the name truly does fit the thing that it is given to. An orange looks like an orange. Carol from Human Resources, looks like a Carol (and we know why people look like their names). What’s less discussed, but just as important to know is where the name comes from. Below, we’ll travel back to the origin of the name of the kangaroo.
A scientific endeavour
Our journey into how the kangaroo got its name begins on a British Royal Navy research vessel named the HMS Bark Endeavour. Commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, she was the first ship to reach the Eastern coast of Australia after spending six months mapping the coast of New Zealand. The ship made landfall on the southern shore of what is now known as Botany Bay, New South Wales April 29th, 1770, and spent the next four months charting the eastern coast heading north. Unfortunately for the ship, but fortunate for our journey of discovery, just before 11 pm on June 11th, 1770, the Endeavour struck a reef within the Great Barrier Reef system; the reef is now known as the Endeavour reef. A piece of coral, the size of a man’s fist, had sliced clean through the timbers and broke off, lodging itself into the hull. After much struggle, the ship was finally beached at the site of modern Cooktown, on the banks of the Endeavour River, where the crew made repairs over several weeks. (The HMS Endeavor, then renamed “Lord Sandwich 2”, currently lies at the bottom of the Newport Harbor, after being scuttled on August 4th, 1778, during the Battle of Rhode Island.)
A father to Australia
Among the crew of the Endeavour on its scientific expedition through the South Pacific Ocean, was English naturalist, botanist, and patron of the natural sciences, Joseph Banks. Banks is credited with bringing 30,000 plant specimens back to England, introduced Eucalyptus to the western world, and having 80 species of plants named after him. (Joseph Banks also advocated the British government to make Botany Bay, near where the Endeavor was beached, to serve as a place for the reception of convicts. It’s early establishment made the phrase “Botany Bay” become a colloquial metonym for transportation to any Australian penal settlements.) In addition to attaining fame and notoriety in the national sciences community, his journey on the Endeavor would make a contribution to etymology by writing a word in his diary; “kanguru”.
An Indigenous contribution
If the word “kanguru” looks and sounds familiar, it’s because it is close to the general English name we call the hopping, Australian native marsupial: the kangaroo. On July 12th, 1770 when Joseph Banks recorded the word in his diary, he slightly misspelled the Guugu Yimithirr’s people name for the animal; correctly spelled “gangurru”. Learning from the native Guugu Yimithirr people, Banks remarked that the Australian Aboriginal language was, “totally different from that of the Islanders; it sounded more like English in its degree of harshness tho it could not be called harsh neither.”. Today, there are less than 2,000 fluent speakers of the Guugu Yimithirr language (though there is an effort to save the Guuga Yimithirr language using Youtube videos). It is said, though unconfirmed, that kangaroo is the first word of any Australian Aboriginal language spoken by a European. Imagine the first time the crew of the Endeavor saw a kangaroo; Marsupials weren’t native to Europe, so seeing a dog-faced-like mammal standing upright, jumping around on its hind legs, somehow balancing on its tail, while carrying their young in a pouch like a human would in a sling must have been quite a sight. James Cook reported it looking “of a light mouse colour and the full size of a greyhound, and shaped in every respect like one, with a long tail, which it carried like a greyhound; in short, I should have taken it for a wild dog but for its walking or running, in which it jumped like a hare or deer.”.
Thanks to Guugu Yimithirr and the crew of the HMS Endeavour, we have a name for these cool creatures. The next time you see one at a zoo, or on a nature documentary, or in person if you’re lucky enough to be in Australia (where kangaroos outnumber people two to one); smile, because you now know the history behind the name of the kangaroo.
Related interesting facts:
- Two spacecraft have been named after the HMS Endeavor: NASA Space Shuttle Endeavour and SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule C206.
- Over 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia over 80 years, the first fleet arriving at Botany Bay.
- Guugu Yimithirr language is a form of avoidance language; speaking was totally forbidden in the presence of one’s mother-in-law.
- A false alternative origin of the word “kangaroo” exists where Cook asks the Guugu Yimithirr people the name of the creature, to which they responded, “gangurru”; said to mean “I don’t know”.