Saturday, March 31, 2007

Roo, Roo, Roo Your Boat

A caller asked about the plausibility of the following story: An early European explorer in Australia asked a native for the name of a strange-looking animal leaping nearby. The aborigine scratched his head and replied, “kangaroo.” The explorer took that to be the name of the mammal, not realizing that the native had said in bewilderment, “I don’t know.”

The odds are that the story is bogus. First of all, the likelihood of a native not having a name for a local, familiar animal is quite low. Secondly, early written testimony tells us that it was a known name. Captain Cook’s Journal speaks of “the animals which I have before mentioned, called by the Natives Kangooroo or Kanguru.” The term found by anthropologists in the Endeavor River area was gaNurru.

However, other early accounts claim that the name kangaroo was unknown to natives they encountered; instead, they used words like patagorong or patagaran. The discrepancy is probably due to different languages or dialects found scattered across the vast bounds of Australia.

At any rate, the Oxford English Dictionary pooh-poohs the story in its usual elegant way by saying that it “seems to be of recent origin and lacks confirmation.” Kangaroos are macropods, a word that breaks into macro-, large, and -pod, foot. That makes the kangaroo the original Bigfoot of our era.

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