Aping McCarthy

[This is a guest post from my friend and former research colleague Joel Bray, a junior at Duke studying evolutionary anthropology. He is recently back from projects and adventures in Uganda and Madagascar and writes about his experiences and all things primate here. -S.]

I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian, an epic tale about the depravity and brutality of the American Old West, revolving around a teenage boy who joins a band of Native American scalp hunters. An unpleasant read, to say the least.

I was struck, however, as any good primatologist should be, by McCarthy’s obsession with the word “ape.” He uses it not once, not twice, but nine times throughout the story to describe the primitiveness and wretchedness of humanity. For example:

  • “Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes.”
  • “He turned to the men and smiled and they once again began to hoot and to pummel one another like apes.”
  • “They were half naked and they sucked their teeth and snuffled and stirred and picked at themselves like apes.”
  • “…where the company sat among the rocks without fire or bread or camaraderie any more than banded apes.”

The frequent use of “ape” got me thinking about the word’s etymology and current popular usage. I did some browsing on the web, and it appears that the word can be traced to pre-12th century and has its roots in Middle English, from the Old English apa. Its origin is uncertain, possibly alluding to animal chatter, but it seems to have first referred to all primates and was a synonym for “monkey.” Since medieval times, it was believed that apes were prone to imitative human behavior, and the word was used to describe a “fool,” leading to the modern, secondary definitions of “ape” as a mimic, or large uncouth person. Recent cognitive studies suggest, however, that humans are in fact the expert imitators, which explains why you see children mimicking ape behavior at the zoo more often than the reverse.

As the use of “ape” among the public changed over the centuries, so did the biological definition evolve over time with advances in our scientific understanding of primates. For a long period, and even among some holdouts today, it was used to describe all members of Hominoidea except humans. Homo sapiens remained exceptional until recently, when they were finally placed within the other apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons — a victory for monophyly (grouping all descendants of a common ancestor together).

Colloquially, “ape” and monkey” continue to be used interchangeably to the constant vexation of primatologists (shortcut: monkeys have tails, apes do not). From personal experience, if and when people do differentiate, “monkey” simply refers to all primates while “ape” retains some specificity. To be fair, even “monkey” refers to a paraphyletic group (a group descended from a common ancestor, but not including all descendants) and thus is not reflective of true evolutionary history, but that’s a discussion for another day.

An amateur investigation at Google Translator suggests that most languages (Spanish, Dutch, French, Korean, Portuguese, Arabic, German – exceptions include Japanese and Chinese) do not even distinguish between the two and use the same word or character for both. For example, in Spanish “mono” means both “monkey” and “ape,” although due to English influence there seems to be a movement for the less-used “simio” to signify “ape,” though traditionally it too refers to both. Complementing this usage is the phrase “grandes simios,” or great apes, which parallels the English in referring to all apes except gibbons.

Other languages likely have similar etymological histories. However, since English is the modern language of science, it may have been the prime mover in officially separating the two words and their meanings. That being said, I’d be curious to know if languages from regions of the world that are home to both apes and monkeys (e.g. equatorial Africa, Indonesia) have historically had more subtle terminology to describe them. [The English word “orangutan” comes from the Indonesian/Malay words orang hutan, forest man, suggesting that Indonesians viewed orangutans as more similar to humans. The word kera is translated as both “monkey” and “ape,” but in a scientific context monyet is “monkey” and kera is “ape.” –ed.]

Ultimately, with such a complicated and dynamic etymological and evolutionary history, it’s no surprise that the public can hardly keep up with the wishes of primatologists on what to call the primates. I won’t give up the good fight, but I realize that it’s pretty much a big deal to fewer than a hundred people on the entire planet.

Thinking back to the connotations in Blood Meridian though, I would like to know how other people perceive the word “ape” and what it suggests to them. So I ask you: does ape make you think smart, thoughtful, creative? Or primitive, nonhuman, backwards? Do you imagine monkeys? Savages? King Kong? Yourself?

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