Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Monkey business

The English names of many monkeys are often taken directly from the local names in whatever part of the world the animals are found. When the names are more consciously awarded, however, some themes start to emerge. The names baboon and marmoset both come from French words that mean ‘grotesque figure’. When the people who named monkeys were in a more charitable mood, however, they drew analogies with monks.

The best known example of the latter practice can be found in the capuchin monkey of South America. This creature’s name comes from the supposed resemblance between its thick pelt and the cowl of the Capuchin monks, a branch of the Franciscan order noted for the hooded cloaks worn by its members (capuchon being the French word for a cowl).

A very similar process can be seen in the less familiar word talapoin. This comes from an ancient form of the Mon language of south-east Asia, and originally referred to a Buddhist monk. But it was later applied to a small West African monkey on account of a perceived similarity between the two.

It is curious that the entries for monk and monkey are adjacent in The Chambers Dictionary. On some levels the two represent quite contradictory ideas: monks are solitary, sober and serious, while we think of monkeys as being gregarious and fun-loving creatures. Moreover, although both words start with the same four letters, they have their origins in different languages: monk comes (via Old English and Latin) from the Greek word monachos meaning literally ‘a person who lives alone’; monkey appears to have come from the Middle Low German word moneke.

Is it just a coincidence that two different species of monkey should be named after two different types of holy man? Or is it perhaps that people have looked at these creatures and seen something spiritual going on behind all of their monkeying around?

Ian Brookes

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