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I have to confess, I can’t recall precisely hearing this, but it seems to be so widespread that, well, I must have heard it. Even so, I seriously doubt its veracity. I rushed to my Macquarie Aboriginal Words to find something from a reputable source, but alas, it contained nothing helpful to inject some sense into this garbage.

This is so widespread that it appears in a myriad of languages, including Czech:

Když angličtí objevitelé přijeli do Austrálie, viděli podivná skákající zvířata (klokany). Zavolali domorodce a snažili se ho zeptat, co je to za zvíře. Domorodec řikal “Kan Ghu Ru” … odtud Kangaroo. Bohužel Kan Ghu Ru v jeho řeči znamenalo: “Já vám nerozumím”.

Arabic Farsi/Dari [My bad. Thanks to Bulbul for the correction] (sorry if the unavoidable italics makes the script look odd):

آيا ميدانستيد که: مهاجرين انگليسي در استراليا با حيوان عجيبي روبرو شدند که بسيار بالا و دور

مي پريده. هنگاميکه از بوميان در مورد اين حيوان با حرکات بدن پرسيده اند آنها در جواب گفته اند:
Kan Ghu Ru

که در زبان انگليسي به Kangaroo تبديل شده است.

در حقيقت منظور بوميان اين بوده که “ما منظور شما را نمي فهميم”.

Romanian:

Cand englezii au ajuns in Australia au vazut un animal ciudat care sarea prin paduri. Au chemat un bastinas si l-au intrebat prin semne ce animal era acela. Cum bastinasul repeta “kan ghu ru” ei au adoptat acel nume pentru animal. Dupa mult timp cercetatorii au constatat ca bastinasul de fap spunea “nu inteleg”.

And Italian – although it looks like this particular writer has taken a little creative license, especially when pointing out that the ‘indigeni’ were ‘extremely pacifistic’:

Quando i conquistatori inglesi arrivarono in Australia, si spaventarono nel vedere degli strani animali che facevano salti incredibili. Chiamarono immediatamente uno del luogo (gli indigeni australiani erano estremamente pacifici) e cercarono di fare domande con i gesti. Sentendo che l’indio diceva sempre “Kan Ghu Ru” adottarono il vocabolo inglese “kangaroo” (canguro). I linguisti determinarono dopo ricerche che il significato di quello che gli indigeni volevano dire era “Non vi capisco”.

In case you’re not familiar with any of these languages, here it is in English:

When the English settlers landed in Australia, they noticed a strange animal that jumped extremely high and far. They asked the aboriginal people using body language and signs trying to ask them about this animal. They responded with ’’Kan Ghu Ru’’ the english then adopted the word kangaroo. What the aboriginal people were really trying to say was ‘’we don’t understand you’’, ‘’ Kan Ghu Ru’’.

There are plenty more versions of this myth in many languages. A Google search for the exact phrase “kan ghu ru” returns 11,800 hits, most of which appear to be this story precisely. Just imagine all those variations that didn’t use that precise spelling.

Given its ubiquity then, why should I think it’s utter nonsense have reservations about it?

Well, a number of reasons. First, these different versions are all identical apart from the language they’re in (a superficial difference), which suggests just how recent it is (although this could be an artefact of the five minutes on Google that is my half-arsed attempt at serious research). Obviously the older a story is, the more variable it becomes, as different people tell a slightly different version. Chinese whispers on steroids.

Secondly, this story is heavy on detail, such as the spelling of the supposed actual utterance and its meaning, yet it contains nothing about where this encounter may have taken place. It merely refers to when the English ‘arrived’. I think I recall hearing that ‘kangaroo’ comes from Cook’s first encounter with aboriginal people in Cape York, and possibly from as far back as the first voyage, in the 1770s¹ (other online sources identify ‘kangaroo’ as deriving from Guugu-Yimidhirr, which vindicates my vague memories).

Thirdly, doesn’t it seem way too light in morphemes to say all that? I mean, I don’t know squat about Wik or Kuku languages, and while it’s entirely possible for the four mains bits of meaning, we, you, understand and not, to correspond to the possible four morphemes here, ka-, -n, -ghu and ru, I am still heavily sceptical.

Lastly, Wik-Mungkan, one of the language on the Cape, was the well-documented source of other names for animals, such as the Taipan, Thuuk Thaipan (accounting of course for noun classifiers), so the two parties were clearly able to communicate beyond this fairy-tale, ‘We don’t understand you’ rubbish!

So when you next hear such misinformed folk etymology, tell them where to go.

~

¹Or whenever it was that Cook sailed south to observe the Transit of Venus.