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Kangaroo court

Q From Mary Ramsey: Recently I used the expression kangaroo court in my 10th grade English class and a student asked about the origin of that expression. Any explanations?

A A kangaroo court is one that’s illegal, not properly constituted or is manifestly unfair or unjust and in which the likelihood of the prisoner’s being found guilty doesn’t depend on the evidence.

You might reasonably assume the term is Australian — only in that country, after all, does one find kangaroos. But the term is definitely American, with no known links to Australia apart from the animal’s name. What’s more, the early history of the term is almost totally opaque. Under such circumstances, folk etymology thrives.

It has been suggested that it comes from the habit of kangaroos out in the bush of staring fixedly at human intruders for minutes at a time and that settlers might have connected this to the unwavering assessing stare of judge and jurors at a trial. Others argue that it might have come from a vicious streak that cornered kangaroos are reported to display. It has been seriously put forward that a prime characteristic of the first kangaroo courts was that they hopped unpredictably from place to place or that the prisoner was bounced from court to gallows. Or it might have been that kangaroo courts defied the laws of nature, just as the kangaroo’s appearance and hopping gait does.

Do I hear you calling for the facts? This is where the problem arises. Until recently, the first example was recorded in a book by the pseudonymous Philip Paxton (whose real name was S A Hammett) in 1853 in A Stray Yankee in Texas: “By a unanimous vote, Judge G____ was elected to the bench and the ‘Mestang’ or ‘Kangaroo Court’ regularly organized”. In September 2007 an earlier example was reported by Stephen Goranson of Duke University from The Mississippian for 12 January 1849 but referring to an event the month before: “On the evening succeeding the election, a meeting was gotten up some what in imitation of a ‘Kangaroo Court,’ for the purpose of trying three individuals, (not all of who had voted for Taylor,) on charges preferred, that one of them, H____, is ever loudest to proclaim his democratic sentiments, but has never been known to vote for one of the party for any office, from President down.”

The kangaroo court in the first example was an unofficial legal institution set up on the frontier at a time when the regular law didn’t reach so far — much like the lynch law of the previous century on the other side of the continent. The association may have been between the unruliness of the body and that of the kangaroo, since the mustang, a half-tamed horse, was also invoked. The second example also suggests an ad hoc body (and also that the term was even then well enough known in Mississippi that it didn't need explaining). On the other hand, the next examples don’t appear until the 1890s and most of those refer to mock courts organised by prisoners in jails to deprive new inmates of their money. The term must have been fairly common around 1850 to appear in newspapers in different states, so the long gap is puzzling; either it wasn’t that widely used or it died out, only to be rediscovered or reinvented later.

Many people like to see something in the closeness of the date of the first example to that of the gold rush in California in 1849. Many Australians came to seek their fortune there (it was easier for them to get to the American west coast by sea than it was for Americans coming from the east coast overland or around Cape Horn). It is suggested that informal courts were held in the gold diggings to control illegal prospectors, who were called claim-jumpers, and that the association of ideas between jumping and kangaroos was too strong to resist. But this story is refuted by the Mississippi discovery, since that state is a long way from California and the newspaper report predates the gold rush.

We’re now less sure about the answer than we were before the Mississippi citation turned up. Such is etymology.

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Page created 17 Oct 1998; Last updated 02 Feb 2008