The Origin Of The Word Kangaroo: A Surprising History

Have you ever wondered where the word “kangaroo” comes from? It turns out that the origin of this unique name has a surprising and fascinating history. From early European explorers to miscommunications and linguistic misunderstandings, the story behind the word “kangaroo” is as intriguing as the animal itself.

In this article, we’ll dive into the origin of the word “kangaroo” and uncover the remarkable journey that led to this iconic name. Whether you’re a language enthusiast or simply curious about the etymology of words, join us on this linguistic adventure to learn more about the surprising history of the word “kangaroo.”

Theories on the Origin of the Word “Kangaroo”

European Misinterpretation

One theory suggests that the word “kangaroo” originated from a miscommunication between European explorers and Aboriginal people. When asked about the name of the strange hopping animal, the Aboriginal people may have replied with “gangurru,” which means “I don’t understand” in their language. However, the explorers mistakenly believed that it was the name of the animal itself, and the word “kangaroo” was born.

Indigenous Language

Another theory proposes that “kangaroo” is derived from the Guugu Yimithirr language spoken by Indigenous Australians. In Guugu Yimithirr, the word for kangaroo is “gangurru.” This theory suggests that early European settlers adopted the term from the Indigenous people they encountered.

Early European Influence

Some theories attribute the origins of “kangaroo” to early European influences. It is believed that a Portuguese or Spanish influence may have played a role, as the words “canguru” and “gagara” are similar to “kangaroo” in sound and meaning. Alternatively, it is suggested that “kangaroo” may have been influenced by the word “tangara,” which means “large black kangaroo” in the Wiradjuri language.

These theories highlight the complex history and cultural interactions that shaped the word “kangaroo.” It is a reminder of the ongoing importance of language and communication in understanding the world around us.

Cultural Influences on the Naming of Kangaroos

The naming of kangaroos has been influenced by various cultures throughout history. The indigenous Aboriginal people of Australia played a significant role in naming these iconic marsupials. The word “kangaroo” itself is believed to have originated from the Guugu Yimithirr language spoken by the Indigenous people of the area now known as Cooktown in Queensland. In their language, “gangurru” refers specifically to the Eastern Grey Kangaroo.

The Aboriginal people have a deep spiritual connection with the land and its fauna, including kangaroos. They had intricate knowledge and understanding of the natural world, which is reflected in their naming of animals. Kangaroos held great cultural and symbolic significance for the Aboriginal people, representing fertility, survival, and kinship.

European explorers and settlers further influenced the naming of kangaroos. When they first encountered these unique creatures, they were unfamiliar with their appearances and behaviors. They lacked existing words in their languages to describe them accurately, leading to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

One well-known miscommunication occurred during Captain James Cook’s 1770 voyage to Australia. When the Indigenous people were asked about the name of the animal, they responded with “gangurru,” which the Europeans misheard as “kangaroo.” This misunderstanding resulted in the adoption of the word “kangaroo” to refer to all kangaroo species, even though the word originally referred only to the Eastern Grey Kangaroo.

European settlers’ influence on the naming of kangaroos extended beyond the word “kangaroo” itself. They introduced additional names for different kangaroo species, such as the Red Kangaroo, Western Grey Kangaroo, and Wallaroo, among others.

In conclusion, the naming of kangaroos is a reflection of both indigenous Aboriginal culture and European influence. The word “kangaroo” originated from the Guugu Yimithirr language, while European settlers introduced additional names for specific kangaroo species. The cultural influences on the naming of kangaroos highlight the importance of understanding the rich history and diverse perspectives surrounding these unique creatures.

Linguistic Factors in the Naming of Kangaroos

The naming of kangaroos is influenced by various linguistic factors, including the indigenous Australian languages and the influence of European explorers and settlers. The evolution of the word “kangaroo” and its linguistic origins provide insights into the cultural and linguistic history of these fascinating animals.

Indigenous Australian Languages

The indigenous Australian languages have played a significant role in the naming of kangaroos. Different indigenous groups have their own names and classifications for kangaroos, reflecting their unique cultural and linguistic systems. For example, the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales refer to kangaroos as “gangurru,” while the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia use the word “malu.”

European Influence and Misunderstandings

European explorers and settlers encountered kangaroos during their exploration of Australia and had to find ways to describe these unfamiliar animals. The word “kangaroo” is thought to have originated from a misunderstanding between the explorers and the indigenous people. It is believed that when asked about the animal, the indigenous people responded with “kangaroo,” which meant “I don’t understand” in their language. However, the explorers mistook this response as the name of the animal itself.

Derivations and Variations of the Word “Kangaroo”

Over time, the word “kangaroo” has been adopted and adapted in various languages and dialects. In some regions, the word has been Anglicized, while in others, it has been modified to better suit the local language. For example, in Spanish, kangaroo is called “canguro,” in French it is “kangourou,” and in German it is “Känguru.”

Overall, the linguistic factors in the naming of kangaroos reflect the complex interactions between indigenous languages and European influences. The evolution of the word “kangaroo” highlights the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity in shaping our understanding and appreciation of these remarkable creatures.

The Evolution of the Word “Kangaroo”

The word “kangaroo” has a fascinating history that traces back to the early days of European exploration in Australia. When Europeans first encountered the unique hopping marsupial, they had no previous knowledge or understanding of such a creature. As a result, they struggled to find an appropriate name for it.

One popular theory suggests that the word “kangaroo” originated from a misunderstanding between the explorers and the local indigenous people. It is believed that when Europeans pointed to the animal and asked the locals what it was called, they responded with “kangaroo” which, in their language, meant “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know.” However, this theory has been widely disputed and is considered inaccurate by many linguists and anthropologists.

Another theory proposes that the word “kangaroo” is derived from the Guugu Yimithirr language spoken by the indigenous people of the area where the animal was first encountered. In this language, the word “gangurru” or “gangur” referred specifically to the Eastern Grey Kangaroo. This theory suggests that early European explorers misunderstood and generalized the term to refer to all kangaroo species.

Regardless of the exact origin of the word, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that “kangaroo” became widely used in English. The creature’s unique appearance and behavior, coupled with its cultural significance in Australia, helped popularize the word and solidify its place in the English language.

Today, “kangaroo” is recognized globally as the name for the iconic marsupial species found in Australia. Its evolution from a misunderstood word to a well-established term reflects the cultural and linguistic interactions that have shaped our understanding of the natural world.


The origin of the word “kangaroo” has long been debated, with various theories and cultural influences playing a role in its naming. Linguistic factors also played a part in the evolution of the word. While the true origin may never be definitively known, it is clear that the word “kangaroo” has a rich and fascinating history.

Whether it originated from a mistranslation, a miscommunication, or a combination of cultural and linguistic influences, the word “kangaroo” has become synonymous with these unique and iconic animals. It serves as a reminder of the diversity of language and the interconnectedness of cultures. So, next time you see a kangaroo, take a moment to appreciate the origins of its name and the stories it tells.

Liked this? Share it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *