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What does Kangaroo Mean?

Team StoryWeavers|January 29, 2022, 18:12 IST|

Kangaroos are unique in so many ways – they hop as high as 25 feet, carry their kids in a pouch in their tummy and they use their tail as a fifth leg. They are also the only animals that jump as their main way of movement! It is indeed interesting to learn about this marsupial (animals that carry their own babies in a pouch) which is mostly found in Australia. However, did you know that its name also has an interesting story behind it? 

Why are they called Kangaroos? What does it mean? Read on to find out!

The explorer’s misunderstanding

As you all may have learnt in school, Kangaroos are mostly found in Australia for several centuries now. And The Land Down Under was also the home to native aboriginal tribes who spoke over 250 languages. So naturally, they would have different names for the Kangaroo!

However, in the 1700s when Australia opened up to explorers, a British explorer called James Cook spotted a Kangaroo. He had never seen this hopping animal earlier in his life. Curious to know more, he went up to a native of Australia and asked him in English – What is this?

Kangaroos are interesting animals, even their names have a twist

And the native, who spoke the aboriginal language, did not understand English (obviously not the smartest move, is it, Captain Cook?). He replied in his own language called Guugu Yimithirr using the words: “Kangaroo?”. It meant – I don’t know. So James Cook falsely assumed that the native was actually giving the name of the Kangaroo. He also went on to form a theory that the name Kangaroo was derived from the Guugu Yimithirr word that meant: I don’t know. 

And this story was widely believed by all of us for over 200 years. As recently as 1972, it was known that the James Cook theory was not entirely correct. There’s another theory that Kangaroos were not called Kangaroos at all by the natives. They were called ‘meenua’, observed another explorer – Captain King in 1820.

And this is a myth too because it was later noted that the natives pointed to the Kangaroo saying ‘minha’ which means meat animal. Kangaroo meat was quite the delicacy then. Well, for all the efforts that the explorers took to introduce Australia to the outside world, it looks like they knew shockingly little about the native inhabitants there. 

What’s the actual etymology?

Turns out, Cook’s theory was not entirely wrong either!  The Kangaroo’s name is indeed derived from Guugu Yimithirr, one of the 250 languages spoken by the aboriginal tribes in Australia. But the etymology is different. Recent linguistic studies have shown that the word Kangaroo is derived from Gungurru, which means Black Kangaroo in Guugu Yimithirr. The black Kangaroo is one of the four species of Kangaroos found in Australia. The other species are also called Marlu in their native languages. 

Isn’t it shocking that a factually-incorrect piece of information was believed to be true for over 200 years? Do you know any other facts about animals that are myths? Share your answers with us in the comments. 

About the Author

Aparna is a mom, singer and dreamer. At BYJU'S, she writes stories about learning for children. She believes in the power of music, especially ghazal, the magic of the universe and happy learners. When not writing or singing, you will find her intensely engaged in conversations about life and the power of words.

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