Why malign kangaroos?

The sacked defense secretary of the UK Gavin Williamson said that he was the victim of a ‘kangaroo court’ that unfairly blamed him for a leak from the National Security Council. The term ‘kangaroo court’ is so common that its strangeness slipped past me and until now I had never wondered where such unusual turn of phrase might have come from. It is only after I had made that post that the thought occurred to me: Why kangaroo? What has that animal done to become synonymous with an unfair judicial proceeding where the normal procedures of justice are perverted so that the outcome is determined is even before proceedings start?

You would think that the term originated in Australia but its first recorded use in print was in the US back in 1853. The origins are unclear but Merriam Webster has some theories.

A kangaroo court has never been a court by or for kangaroos, but beyond that, little is known for sure about the term’s origins. Various theories abound: it has been suggested that kangaroo courts got their name because they were initially marked by rapid and unpredictable movement from one place to another, or that they were in some way associated with “jumping” (i.e., illegally occupying) mining claims. These hypotheses are all unsubstantiated, however. What is known is that the first kangaroo courts originated in the United States at approximately the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush, and the word saw its earliest use in the southwestern U.S. It first turned up in print in 1853 in a book about Texas.

Wikipedia suggests that the presence of Australians during the Gold Rush may have been the source for the phrase.

Interesting, but none of these theories seem very convincing to me. We may never know why this innocent marsupial became emblematic of injustice.


  1. flex says

    Brewer suggests that it comes from a slang term, “To kangaroo” which means to convict someone on false evidence.

    However, it doesn’t indicate if the verb from came after or prior to the description of a court which “jumps” to a conclusion with inadequate, false, or misleading evidence.

    However, Funk suggests, from a letter printed in the Melbourne Age on April 26, 1957, from Mr. J.D. Seymour of Longwarry North, Victoria Australia:

    Many years ago when I was working on the Hamilton Downs station, about 200 miles south of the present site of Alice Springs, I put the same question to an old hand. I had seen many ‘sundowners’ calling at homesteads and huts for a handout and wondered why the irresponsible didn’t take a chance and steal a horse for their long walkabouts.

    The oldtimer answered: ‘If they did, maybe they’d soon find themselves in in hoppers’ court.’ Asked what he meant, he said: ‘That’s what we call it.’

    The manager was more explicit. ‘It comes,’ he said, ‘from the kangaroos in the back country where they seldom, or never, see a white man, and the only lethal weapon they know is a blackfellow’s spear. They feed in small bunches. When they sight a man out of spear range they sit up and stare, sometimes for five minutes, and then turn and leap for the horizon. It is from that dumb sense of inter-communication common to all animals and the resemblance of the staring bunch to an inquiring council and quick decision that we got the term Kangaroo Court.

    No doubt Australian ‘forty-niners’ took the term to California as the Americans brought their idioms to this country less than a decade later.

    I do not think there is enough evidence to justify that explanation as the origin of the slang term; but it makes a pretty good story.

  2. cartomancer says

    I always thought it was called a Kangaroo Court because it leapt over (dispensed with) usual judicial standards to reach the verdict it wanted. Kangaroos being famed for their jumping ability and all.

    But I suppose it could be a reference to Australians. If it were, though, then I would expect there would be evidence of other things associated with Australians getting similar “Kangaroo” nicknames in the same time and place. I can’t think of a single one, but then again I’m not from 1850s Texas.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Well, a group of kangaroos is called a mob. So is a group of emus, but “emu court” doesn’t sound very intimidating, even if emus can be.

  4. ridana says

    Kangaroos come into court with the verdict already in their pouches (pockets).

  5. Holms says

    I was always under the impression that it was called such not as a reference to the behaviour of the roo, but to the idea of a court being so rustic and impromptu that it had kangaroos wandering about.

  6. KG says

    Why kangaroo? What has that animal done to become synonymous with an unfair judicial proceeding where the normal procedures of justice are perverted so that the outcome is determined is even before proceedings start?

    Well, have you ever known kangaroos hold a properly convened trial, with the defendant fully represented, and acquited unless the charge is proved beyond reasonable doubt?

    I rest my case!

Leave a Reply

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