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World Wide Words: Kangaroo court
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You might reasonably assume the term is Australian — only in that country, after all, does one find kangaroos. 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. Do I hear you calling for the facts?
This is where the problem arises. 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. 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 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.