phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Kangaroo Court

Posted by Bruce Kahl on June 06, 2000

In Reply to: Origin of Kangaroo Court and Frick and Frack posted by Andrea Field on June 06, 2000

One of the strangest aspects of "kangaroo court" is that the phrase is not originally from Australia, which is the only place you'll find actual kangaroos. The first "kangaroo courts" were informal tribunals set up to dispense instant justice in the American West in the 1850's, before conventional court systems existed on the frontier. Later on, "kangaroo court" was used to describe mock courts set up by penitentiary prisoners to intimidate and extort money from new inmates. Today we usually use the term to mean any court whose verdict is arranged in advance or otherwise clearly unfair.

So the question is why "kangaroo" was used to describe such mockeries of justice, and there are two basic possibilities. First: that "kangaroo" is a sardonic analogy between the hopping gait of a kangaroo and the irrational and unpredictable conduct of the original frontier tribunals. Considering the leaps of logic and complete disregard for legal procedure likely to be found in such a proceeding, the comparison certainly seems apt.

Another possibility is that "kangaroo" in this case is simply a metaphor for something utterly alien and unnatural. Most people back then had never even heard of kangaroos, let alone seen one in person, and the critters were generally considered to violate the laws of nature. So labeling something "kangaroo" back then was roughly equivalent to calling it "Martian" today.