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Many Australian animal names have Aboriginal origins

It’s really sad to see the news about Australian animals being killed by wildfires. But it has me wondering, what is the origin of words like kangaroo and koala? They don’t sound like English. Are they Aborigine words?

— Karen, Medford

Your linguistic intuition is spot on, Karen.

Language experts believe the origin of the modern word kangaroo is from the word gangurru from the Aboriginal language of Guugu Yimidhirr.

Aborigine people, the original inhabitants of Australia, speak a variety of languages and dialects.

Gangurru refers to a specific species of kangaroo, not all kangaroos, according to an account on yourdictionary.com.

The first outsider to record the word was likely Captain James Cook, who landed to make repairs on the northeast coast of Australia in 1770.

In 1820, Captain Phillip King recorded a different word for kangaroo — meenuah.

But he may have been hearing minha, an Aboriginal word for an edible animal.

The word koala emerged from Aboriginal words for “no water” or “no drink.” Some of the original names include kaola, koala, colah, coola, colo, coloo, koolewong and koobor, according to koalainfo.com.

Humans have long believed that koalas don’t usually need to drink water because they get moisture from eucalyptus leaves they eat. But wildfires, heat waves, drought and climate change appear to be pushing koalas to seek out drinking water, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Leaves are becoming tougher and drier, and have fewer nutrients and more toxins, according to Valentina Mella, a Sydney University scientist.

Koalas have been spotted begging for water from bicyclists, drinking out of buckets and birdbaths and visiting special watering stations set up by people, the Sydney Morning Herald said.

Other Australian animal names with Aboriginal origins include wallaby, kookaburra (a mainly carnivorous bird) and budgerigar or budgie, known as a parakeet in America, according to welcometocountry.org.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.