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Since You Asked: Verdict awaits on origin of kangaroo courts

I am wondering where the expression "kangaroo court" came from and what it means.

— Dina V.

It's one of those tennis matches where the players keep hopping over the net, Dina.

Or not.

The type of kangaroo court you're probably referring to is a sham trial in which the accused does not get her rights. The term has been traced to the California gold rush days in 1853. The many Australian miners there were not exactly popular among the American-born men, so it's thought that trials of immigrants for "claim jumping" often had predictable outcomes.

It's not much of a leap to see how such an event could become linked to a critter identified with the defendants' country.

Like it? We did too, until we found that Stephen Goranson of Duke University found this usage from January of 1849, before there were Aussies combing California gold fields:

"On the evening succeeding the election, a meeting was gotten up some what in imitation of a 'Kangaroo Court,' for the purpose of trying three individuals ... "

We've also heard the phrase comes from a habit of kangaroos of staring fixedly at humans (like a judge, perhaps); from a vicious streak that comes out when kangaroos are cornered; from frontier courts that hopped from place to place; and from a "court" held by hardened convicts to shake down "fish," or new prisoners.

So take your pick, Dina. These things are notoriously tough to pin down, and the truth is, we may never know.

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