Joel of Far Outliers has one of his typically thought-provoking posts with an extensive quote from a book, in this case Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz, and I have to excerpt and share this part of the quote, for reasons that should be obvious:
As for kangooroo, this was a fair approximation of the Guugu Yimidhirr word, which Eric rendered gangurru. But Aborigines, unlike Maori and Tahitians, didn’t have a shared language; living in small, widely scattered groups, they spoke scores of different tongues. The English failed to recognize this. The result was a comically circular instance of linguistic transmission. Officers of the First Fleet, familiar with the Endeavour’s journals, used the words Cook and his men had collected in Queensland to try and communicate with Botany Bay Aborigines eighteen years later.
“Whatever animal is shown them,” a frustrated officer on the Fleet reported, “they call kangaroo.” Even the sight of English sheep and cattle prompted the Gwyeagal to cheerfully cry out “Kangaroo, kangaroo!” In fact, the Gwyeagal had no such word in their vocabulary (they called the marsupial patagorang). Rather, they’d picked up “kangaroo” from the English and guessed that it referred to all large beasts. So a word that originated with an encounter between Cook and a small clan in north Queensland traveled to England with the Endeavour, then back to Botany Bay with the First Fleet, and eventually became the universal name for Australia’s symbol. There was an added twist. The Guugu Yimidhirr had ten different words for the marsupials, depending on their size and color. “Gangurru means a large gray or black kangaroo,” Eric said. “If Cook had asked about a small red one, the whole world would be saying nharrgali today.”