Wednesday, 7 January 2009


I'd heard before that 'orangutan' meant 'man of the forest' (sometimes I'd heard the name transliterated into English as 'old man of the forest'; or 'wild man of the forest'). Wikipedia goes along with that meaning, as does the OED. But browsing my copy of Hobson-Jobson I discover this isn't true at all:
The great man-like ape of Sumatra and Borneo; Simia Satyrus, L. This name was first used by Bontius (see below). It is Malay, ōrăng-ūtăn, 'homo sylvaticus.' The proper name of the animal in Borneo is mias. Crawfurd says that it is never called orang-utan by 'the natives.'
H-J insert a note of caution about Crawfurd's tendency to be overinsistent, especially with negatives, but they go on:
Mr. Scott (Malayan Words in English, p. 87) writes: "But this particular application of ōrang ūtan to the ape does not appear to be, or ever to have been, familiar to the Malays generally; Crawfurd (1852) and Swettenham (1889) omit it, Pijnappel says it is 'Low Malay,' and Klinkert (1893) denies the use entirely. This uncertainty is explained by the limited area in which the animal exists within even native observation. Mr. Wallace could find no natives in Sumatra who 'had ever heard of such an animal,' and no 'Dutch officials who knew anything about it.' Then the name came to European knowledge more than 260 years ago; in which time probably more than one Malay name has faded out of general use or wholly disappeared, and many other things have happened." Mr. Skeat writes: "I believe Crawfurd is absolutely right in saying that it is never called ōrangūtan by the natives. It is much more likely to have been a sailor's mistake or joke than an error on the part of the Malays who know better. Throughout the Peninsula ōrang-ūtan is the name applied to the wild tribes, and though the mawas or mias is known to the Malays only by tradition, yet in tradition the two are never confused, and in those islands where the mawas does exist he is never called ōrang-ūtan, the word ōrang being reserved exclusively to describe the human species."
I like the idea of a sailor's mistake. It has always seemed to me something of a wondrous coincidence that orangutans, being coloured predominatly orange and tan, had a name in English that seemed to record the fact. Maybe that's not coincidental.

1 comment:

redapes said...

Hi-- I came across your post from a Google search and wanted to you about my organization, Orangutan Outreach. We bring attention to the crisis facing the red apes due to habitat loss and poaching as palm oil corporations clear-cut their forest home.

We also raise funds for our projects in Borneo-- the most famous of which is the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center, which can be seen in Animal Planet's series 'Orangutan Island'.

Maybe you'd like to virtually adopt an orangutan?

To learn more about orangutans and see how you can help protect them, I invite you and your readers to visit the Orangutan Outreach website.

Richard Zimmerman
Director, Orangutan Outreach
Reach out and save the orangutans!
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