Will the real "Orang-Outang" please stand up?


One of the most frustrating factors in studying early descriptions of apes is the multiple meanings of words like "baboon," "Jocko," "Pongo," "mandrill," and "Orang-Outang." Even though we now know apes are our closest living relatives, it has only been recently (within the last 250 years or so) that we have come to know very much about them. Even after they receiving scientific names and the distinct varieties were figured out, there was more myth, legend, and hearsay about them than fact until the latter half of the 20th century!

The confusion over apes in descriptions from the 18th and 19th centuries can yield some very interesting facts for historians of science, though. Of particular interest are representations of apes, often based upon one or two specimens that had been observed by naturalists (alive or dead) and reports of travelers. In Buffon's epic 18th century work Historie Naturelle, for instance, we see a very human-like creature with ape-like feet propped up with a cane. This may have been inspired by Edward Tyson's 1699 dissection of a juvenile chimpanzee, which he had illustrated propped up with a cane.


Tyson probably did this because the animal he observed (and later dissected) was sick from an infected wound, and so Tyson took knuckle-walking to be the result of illness, not a normal mode of locomotion. Having the chimpanzee stand upright also fit into his concept of what the animal was. To Tyson it was neither ape nor human, but something in the Great Chain of Being that held a station between the two.

Illustrations of apes with canes even persisted to almost the mid-19th century. In the second volume of the 1834-5 Family Magazine, not only is there a homunculus-like gibbon, but a chimpanzee-like "orang-outang" propped up with a stick. It is true that this was a family encyclopedia and not a scientific treatise, but I was surprised to see that so little was known about apes that Tyson's imagery was able to persist for so long.

There is one final note that I would like to make, however, and it deals with Buffon's natural history volumes. Last year one of my professors told my primatology class that the origins of the word "chimpanzee" were unknown; it simply seems to have appeared out of nowhere. I do not know if this is still the case, but if it is, the English translation of Buffon's book provides a startling lead. In discussing various apes called orang-outangs, quotes the traveler M. de la Bresse, who traveled to Angola;

...that the Oran-otangs, which he calls Quimpeazes, often attempt to surprise the female negroes, which they keep with them for the pleasure of their company, feeding them very plentifully all the time.

This, obviously, dealt with the mythology that apes would regularly raid villages for women, such stories being used to both affirm the near-human character of the apes and to denigrate native people. That topic deserves an entire book to itself, but it is the term "Quimpeazes" that interests me here. I am no linguist, but it seems to me that our word "chimpanzee" is merely a bastardization of "Quimpeazes," which would have come out of south-west Africa (where many of the first African apes shipped to Europe came from). As I have said, perhaps someone has already anticipated my minor find, but if not, the origin and transmutation of the word "Quimpeazes" is something that merits more attention.

More like this

[Last night New Brunswick was buried under several inches of snow, shutting down the university and giving me the day off. I have been using my free time to get some reading done and work on a few projects but I did not want to neglect this blog. Here are the first several pages of the chapter on…
When Linnaeus was attempting to organize "the Creation," he gave the chimpanzee the binomial Homo troglodytes. Since Edward Tyson's 1699 dissection of a "pigmie" (a juvenile chimpanzee [see Gould's essay "To Show An Ape" in The Flamingo's Smile]), the close resemblance between apes and humans has…
Gymkata proves that tiny gymnasts make tough heroes | Film | Films That Time Forgot | The A.V. Club Plot: At the height of the Reagan era, someone had the bright idea to turn diminutive, soft-voiced, mulleted gymnast Kurt Thomas into an international action star. How? By positing him as a master of…
William Smellie wrote The Philosophy of Natural History in 1791, and it remained in print for over a century. It's a lovely and explicit expression of the Great Chain of Being view that all things grade insensibly from simple to perfect, and all classifications are arbitrary. This was effectively…

Apropos of nothing other than that it involves an orangutan, here's a joke I saw yesterday:

It seems a certain zoo had a particularly intelligent orangutan in its collection. One day his handler noticed the animal was reading both the Bible and the Origin of Species. He asked the animal why he was reading both, to which the orangutan replied, "Well, I'm trying to find out if I'm my brother's keeper, or my keeper's brother."

Buffon's Historie Naturelle came out in, what, 1749? A bit of poking around the Web suggests that the word chimpanzee is first attested from 1738 and was derived from a word in an Angolan language of the Bantu family, cognate to the Tshiluba term kivili-chimpenze, which I have seen translated as "mock man" (Tshiluba being a Bantu language currently spoken in the DRC).

This is when I wish I still had electronic access to the OED.

Thanks for the help, Blake. I did a few searches and didn't turn anything up for "Quimpeazes," but you may be right. I'm not sure when the edition of Buffon's book came out dealing with simians, but he's quoting from an earlier source (de la Bresse), who I have been unable to find more information about.

The second edition of An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language derives "chimpanzee" from "Quimpeazes," though, so it seems like there were several words that could have provided the origin for the present term. The question is "Which?"

I think the earlier source is François Leguat of Bresse, who traveled through Mauritius and Java, among possibly other places. Wikipedia says of him,

Leguat was a Huguenot who fled to Holland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. In 1690 he boarded a ship with a group of other Huguenots bound for the Indian Ocean. They intended to start a new life on the island of Réunion, which they believed had been abandoned by the French, but on finding them still there landed instead on the uninhabited island of Rodrigues.

I may have the wrong guy from Bresse, though.

Incidentally, that passage in the translation of Buffon to which you pointed is reproduced verbatim in The Family Magazine (1843), which bills itself as "a general abstract of useful knowledge".

Scratch what I said before. It's not Bresse, it's Brosse.

Nous pouvons ajouter à tous ces témoignages celui de M. de la Brosse, qui a écrit son voyage à la côte d'Angole en 1738, et dont on nous a communiqué l'extrait : ce Voyageur assure que les orangs-outangs qu'il appelle quimpezés, tâchent de surprendre des Nègresses ; qu'ils les gardent avec eux pour en jouir ; qu'ils les nourrissent très-bien ...

Roughly translated:

We can add to all these testimonies that of M. de la Brosse, who wrote of his voyage to the coast of Angola in 1738, and from which one has communicated us this excerpt: this traveller assures that the orang-outangs, which he calls quimpezés, often try to surprise Negresses, whom they keep with them to play with, and that they feed them very well ...

It must have been so amazing to be one of the first people to study the great apes. Prior to their observation by naturalists (including the local, indigenous variety) they were nothing more than living monsters, magic brought to life.

If only I had a time machine...

Nice post Brian.

A related artistic trope persists in many contemporary artistic reconstructions of hominids: e.g.
here (Who is this last one by? The style seems distinctive but I can't quite place it...)

The other thing that comes to mind is the infamous "de Loy's ape" spider monkey photograph.

I've read ki-mpanzi mean "small climber" in (Ki-)Swahili or some other famous Bantu language. If that's true, we can stop wondering. Some Bantu languages have turned ki into chi (Chichewa for example), others into se or isi (Sesotho, isiXhosa, isiZulu)... generally this kind of thing is a frequent sound change.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 11 Dec 2008 #permalink

This Tshiluba-French dictionary gives completely different words when I enter "chimpanzé" in the French field, and does not know any permutations of "kivili" or "cimpenze" with different placements or amounts of grave accents. That said, the dictionary is said to be incomplete...

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 11 Dec 2008 #permalink

There is hope, though. When I enter grimpeur "climber", it finds mbàndà. Not too far off, though it also suggests that it wasn't precisely this language that the word was borrowed from.

And the first result for petit is cimpidìmpidì. ~:-|

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 11 Dec 2008 #permalink

Heuvelmans has claimed that while Orang Utan (without the g) means man of the forest, Orang Utang actually means man in debt. Are there any readers out there that speak Malay/Bahasa and can tell if this is true?

Yes,in Bahasa Indonesia orang means person, utan (hutan) means forest and utang (hutang) means debt. Orang Utan means man of the forest or forest person. We can find Orang Utan in the forest of Borneo/Kalimantan and Sumatra island.