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Sunday, January 9, 2011


Engraving of an Australian kangaroo, after a painting by George Stubbs.

The first Australian word to enter the English language

While I have been remarkably silent of late, I don't have the pleasant excuse of having been on holiday.  I've been locating images for the beautifully illustrated edition of Tupaia that Random House New Zealand is launching in May -- and writing captions.  And one of those I found fascinating to research and write was the caption to an engraving of a kangaroo that I found as plate 20 in John Hawkesworth's Account of the Voyages ... (London, 1773, vol III.

‘Land animals are scarce’, declared Captain Cook in his description of the coast of Australia. Those in ‘the greatest plenty’ were ‘the Kangooroo, or Kanguru so call’d by the Natives; we saw a great many of them about Endeavour River, but kill’d only Three which we found very good eating’.   And so a word used by the Guugu Yimidhirr Aborigine tribe at the Endeavour River (in the state of Australia that is now known as Queensland) entered the English language.

Amusingly, it was the word for just one species of the animal, the large gray or black kangaroo.  As Tony Horwitz points out in his lively and informative biography of Cook, Blue Latitudes, if the Endeavours had asked about the small red kangaroo, the word that would have entered the language would have been 'nbarrgali' which does not trip nearly so smoothly off the tongue.  As it was, the vocabulary the officers of the First Fleet of convicts to New South Wales were given was that compiled at the Endeavour River, a totally different language to that used in the present site of Sydney.  'Kangaroo,' hollered the Englishmen, pointing at kangaroos, which the local Gweagal interpreted as any large four-footed animal.  So, whenever the officers pointed at any largish animal, including their own sheep, oxen, and horses, "Kangaroo!" the Gweagal cheerfully replied, much to English irritation. 

Anyway, back to Cook and the Endeavour. No one, apparently, thought of taking a live kangaroo to England — or even carrying one or two for eating along the way — but Joseph Banks did carry back two skins. One of these was inflated (probably over a rubber lining) to look as lifelike as possible, and Banks commissioned George Stubbs to paint the result, complete with an imaginative background.

The illustration engraved from this painting, published in Hawkesworth’s bestselling book, made the kangaroo a popular sensation. Scientists, puzzled by the concept of a pouched marsupial, and not knowing how to classify it, debated vigorously and at length. The public response was much more frivolous: a dance called the ‘kangaroo hop’ was invented, which took Europe by storm. Even the great Dr Samuel Johnson was intrigued enough to gather up his coat-tails, and entertain his friends by jumping like a kangaroo.

(For an interesting account of public interest in the Stubbs kangaroo, see, paper by Des Cowley and Brian Hubber, “Distinct Creation: Early European Images of Australian Animals’, in The La Trobe Journal (State Library of Victoria periodical), no. 66 (Spring 2000) pp. 3-32.)

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