Kangaroo court

Boris Johnson called the House of Commons Privileges Committee a kangaroo court. In fact, the term seems to be frequently used. It wasn’t part of my vocabulary and I wondered what it had to do with kangaroos. Apparently the origin is not certain, but it may have to do with leaping over the official route of something, or of an impromptu court moving from place to place.

Here is the Oxford English Dictionary on the term:

kangaroo court  n. originally U.S. an improperly constituted court having no legal standing, e.g. one held by strikers, mutineers, prisoners, etc.

1853   ‘P. Paxton’Stray Yankee in Texas 205   By a unanimous vote, Judge G—— was elected to the bench and the ‘Mestang’ or ‘Kangaroo Court’ regularly organized.
1895   Harper’s Mag. Apr. 718/2   The most interesting of these impromptu clubs is the one called in the vernacular the ‘Kangaroo Court’. It is found almost entirely in county jails.
1931   ‘D. Stiff’Milk & Honey Route 209   Kangaroo court, mock court held in jail for the purpose of forcing new prisoners to divide their money.
1935   A. J. PollockUnderworld Speaks 66/1   Kangaroo Court, a jail tribunal comprised of inmates which collects money from prisoners awaiting trial to supply the needy with tobacco, food and a few luxuries—its decision regarding disputes is final.
1966   Times 14 Mar. 10/1   Shop stewards at Theale are to meet tomorrow to consider paying back the sums levied by a kangaroo court.
1971   Times 20 Jan. 15/3   Citizens who live in the riotous areas [of N. Ireland] deserve protection from..kangaroo courts.
1973   C. MullardBlack Brit.iii. vii. 81   Such practices are surely more like those of a kangaroo court than those that the Race Relations Board should encourage.
Note the term mustang court in the first citation.That’s about animals too. There were not many kangaroos in the USA but according to Wikipedia there were a lot of Australians in California in the gold rush.

2 thoughts on “Kangaroo court

  1. It sure would be interesting to know the term’s origin but, as you pointed out, nobody does: “What is known is that the first kangaroo courts originated in the United States at approximately the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush, and the word saw its earliest use in the southwestern U.S. It first turned up in print in 1853 in a book about Texas.”

  2. I found that book online, and it had a couple more uses of “kangaroo”, but they still didn’t explain any connection. I see The Spectator got this far in an article last week, but I didn’t bother to subscribe.

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