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Word Histories: Gorilla

Hanno! What an asshat.

I wanted one of my characters in Aroon to call someone a gorilla. They couldn’t. The word as we know it today didn’t exist in 1750 when my book takes place.

An American missionary to Liberia, Thomas S. Savage, first acquired bones of a new species of ape. In 1847, Savage and naturalist, Jeffries Wyman, presented their findings to the Boston Society of Natural History where they gave the skull and bones the scientific name of Troglogdytes gorilla.

Savage and Wyman got the word “gorilla” from Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer of the fifth or sixth century B.C. who took 60 ships through Pillars of Heracles (Strait of Gibraltar) and down the West African coast. How far south he traveled is controversial. It seems Hanno and his Carthaginian colleagues made changes in the distances and directions of his account to conceal the true routes. They were determined to remain masters of the seas.
You know what they say about Carthaginians.

One strange excerpt of his logbook states that they came to an island “inhabited by a rude description of people. The females were much more numerous than the males, and had rough skins: our interpreters called them Gorillae. We pursued but could take none of the males; they all escaped to

“My bad.”

the top of precipices, which they mounted with ease, and threw down stones; we took three of the females, but they made such violent struggles, biting and tearing their captors, that we killed them, and stripped off the skins, which we carried to Carthage: being out of provisions we could go no further.”

That is disgusting. I would imagine they came across actual gorillas that the explorer thought were rough, hairy people. Seriously, Hanno? The skins they stripped from the females were taken back to Carthage where, it is said, they remained on display for 350 years until Carthage fell to Rome.

The term “gorilla” came from Hanno’s native interpreters, leading Online Etymology Dictionary to speculate it was an African word. When Thomas Savage and Jeffries Wyman encountered this new species, they decided the creatures were the ones described by Hanno centuries ago.

I guess gorillas were Sasquatch of the 1800s.


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