Kangaroo Court

Posted by Bruce Kahl on December 06, 2001

In Reply to: Kangaroo Court posted by ESC on December 05, 2001

: : I understand that a "kangaroo court" is a sham or mock trial. My Webster Collegiate lists the phrase as first appearing in 1853. I found a web reference that speculates the phrase may be connected to the 1840s gold rush in California. Did "kangaroo court" originate in the gold rush era to describe the ad hoc process of resolving "claim jumping" charges? For example, is kangaroo court a humorous allusion for a "jumping court" to resolve "claim jumping" charges, or is the reference more an indication of the helter-skelter nature of the proceeding?

: Here's all I know about kangaroo court:

: KANGAROO COURT - There's a difference of opinion between my two sources concerning whether this phrase is Australian in origin. From the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1977): "Kangaroo court is an illegal mock or sham court, usually set up by inmates of a prison to levy fines and punishments on other inmates who violate the 'code.' Such organizations usually very informal in nature, exist in most large prisons and are even encouraged by some wardens as a useful device for maintaining order. The name probably originated at the time when Australia, land of the kangaroo, was the penal colony for the British Empire."

Kangaroo Court
A self-appointed tribunal that violates established legal procedure; also, a dishonest or incompetent court of law.
This expression is thought to liken the jumping ability of kangaroos to a court that jumps to conclusions on an invalid basis. [Mid-1800s]

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer © 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust