Safari was borrowed in the 1850s from the Swahili safari, meaning “journey” or “expedition,” in turn from the Arabic safar, “journey” or “tour.”
Liger is much older than you think. Tigon is even older.
Earlier this week, I let the etymological cat out of the bag for International Cat Day. Today, I keep with the feline theme for World Lion Day. Yes, these national/international days can get gimmicky—except where they raise money for wildlife conservation. But I really can’t resist a reason to explore words that come from the lion’s den, so to speak. Here are the origins of 12 lion-related words, with a few bits of other beastly lexical trivia scattered throughout:
This week, I wasn’t the only one who looked to etymology to process the death of Harambe, the lowland gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child found his way into the silverback’s enclosure. “Harambe,” thousands have posted on social media, means “pulling together” or “working together” in Swahili. How fitting, they’ve concluded, using the silverback’s name to call for wildlife conversation, plead for cultural unity in the face of the ensuing and fractious outrage, or rib the many hot-takes the news inspired online. But a closer look at the history of the gorilla’s name may just teach us a thing or two about collective outcry.
Harambe, a variant of harambee, indeed literally means “Let us all pull together” in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. Though this Bantu tongue claims an estimated 100 million speakers, there aren’t extensive Swahili dictionaries on the web (that I can read at least), let alone etymological ones. The Free Dictionary explains harambee was used as a work chant, the heave-ho of the East African Coast. Laborers, presumably, together muscled a massive load with each call of Harambee!
In Kenya, this interjection took on special significance. After achieving independence from Britain in the 1960s, the new government, led by the Kenya Africa National Union, used Harambee to motivate a developing nation, the slogan emerging from a deeper tradition of community organization and fundraising, or harambee.
Today, Kenya features harambee as its official motto and in its coat of arms. And Harambee schools, secondary institutions funded solely through the efforts of the community, showcase how the word has evolved to mean “self-help.” As Oxford Dictionaries note, harambee more generally names or describes a “charitable fundraiser” in East African English.
In 1983, singer Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley, released “Harambe,” a track on Harambe (Working Together for Freedom). “Harambe Harambe Rastaman say Harambe / Harambe Harambe The Higher One Say Harambe,” Marley refrains. Her harambe is a greater call for unity and empowerment in the face of the African diaspora.
Dan Van Coppenolle heard Marley’s track while exercising in 1999, as the retired educator told CNN. Moved by the concept, he later submitted Harambe to a Texan zoo’s naming contest for the baby, now late, gorilla. (We can only imagine that such a contest today would yield the much less dignified Gorilla McGorillaface.)
While the origin of Harambe is a rallying cry, its also reminds us that there is a difference between collective outcry and collective action. How fitting for the cultural moment, indeed.
m ∫ r ∫
Last week, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it is finally retiring its elephant act. Perhaps the circus’s most famous elephant was Jumbo, whom Barnum bought from the London Zoo in 1882 with much hullabaloo. Jumbo’s legendary size lives on in the legacy of his name. Jumbo cigars fill our mouths and jumbo jets fill the sky. We gulp jumbo-sized sodas in our stadium seats as jumbotrons fill our eyes. So, let’s size up the origin of jumbo.
From West Africa to England, from Arabian hunters to Italian animal traders, from Prussian menageries to American circuses, Jumbo’s incredible and outsized story may be well known, but the etymology of jumbo is certainly not.
In short, we aren’t exactly sure who named Jumbo, why, and what the name precisely means. Some argue that Jumbo was named for a Zulu word for a “large packet” or “large parcel”; others, for the Swahili for “hello” (jambo) or “chief, boss” (jumbe). Also cited is a Kongo word, nzamba, apparently a word for “elephant,” though nzombo has been glossed by Daniel Webster as “python,” according to Eric Partridge. Yet others argue that Jumbo is taken from a 19th-century slang term, jumbo, originally referring to a big and clumsy person–which word may be derived from another proposed origin of the elephant’s name, mumbo-jumbo.