How Did the Kangaroos Get Their Name? Who Named the Kangaroo?

painting of a kangaroo

Photo: Old painting of a kangaroo

Captain James Cook was the first European to name the kangaroo. This spelling was his translation of the word "gaNurru" used by the Guugu Yimidhirr aboriginal people to describe the eastern grey kangaroo. In his journal dated 4 August 1770, Cook wrote:

"...Besides the Animal which I have before mentioned called by the natives Kangooroo or ^Kanguru..... The Kangura are in the greatest number for we seldom went into the Country without seeing some."

Over time the spelling of the word was simplified to make it easier for English speaking people to pronounce it. Hence its current spelling kangaroo. Sounds like "kang·guh·roo".

Note: Cook's sailing ship, the Endeavour, was severely damaged while crossing the Great Barrier Reef. The crew beached the ship for urgent repairs near the modern-day city of Cooktown on the north Queensland coast. While there, the crew came across many weird animals. They even shot a few kangaroos, noting that the animal's meat was quite delicious.

Folklore About the Name 'Kangaroo' It's Not True

First European to Draw a Kangaroo

Sydney Parkinson, who was an artist on this voyage, was the first European to draw a kangaroo.

kangaroo illustralion

Drawing by Sydney Parkinson

Popular legend has it that the first European explorers asked a local Australian aboriginal what the name of the hopping animal was. He replied, 'kangaru'. The explorers thought this was the animal's name, but in actual fact, the aboriginal was merely saying "I don’t know" or "I don't understand your question". This interpretation of how the name originated is false.

Did You Know

A male kangaroo is called a boomer
A female kangaroo is called a flyer
A baby kangaroo is called a joey

• What is a Kangaroo?

First Description of a Kangaroo by a European But He Didn't Name It

The first European to describe the strange hopping animals of Australia was the Dutch navigator Francois Pelsaert, while sailing off the western coast of Australia. In 1629 he wrote a detailed description of the Tammar Wallaby, a tiny member of the kangaroo family. But he didn't give these animals a name.

• Read Francois Pelsaert's Description Here