The Grammarphobia Blog

A kangaroo court

Q: What’s the origin of the expression “kangaroo court”? Does it come from Australia? And why a kangaroo of all things?

A: The expression “kangaroo court” originated not in Australia but in the American West during the 19th century. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines it as an illegal, dishonest, or incompetent court.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from A Stray Yankee in Texas, an 1853 book by Philip Paxton, the pen name of Samuel Adams Hammett: “By a unanimous vote, Judge G— was elected to the bench and the ‘Mestang’ or ‘Kangaroo Court’ regularly organized.” (“Mestang” is an old spelling for that small, wild horse we now refer to as a “mustang.”)

Nobody knows for sure how the kangaroo got into the expression “kangaroo court.” But there are several theories. (Excuse me if I don’t get into the mustang angle here!)

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says the term “probably arose from some likening of the ‘jumps’ of the kangaroo to the progress of ‘justice’ in such courts.” The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang suggests that the irregular court and the odd-looking kangaroo both seem to defy the laws of nature.

Another possible explanation is that the expression describes the informal trials of accused claim jumpers during the Gold Rush. But this is all speculation. Sorry I can’t be more definite.

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