I’m reading an interesting articla (single-page printable version) by Ian Parker in the latest New Yorker (“Swingers: Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they?”), and I’ve just come across an etymological tidbit:
For decades, “pygmy chimpanzee” remained the common term for these apes, even after “bonobo” was first proposed, in a 1954 paper by Eduard Tratz, an Austrian zoologist, and Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich zoo. (They suggested, incorrectly, that “bonobo” was an indigenous word; they may have been led astray by Bolobo, a town on the south bank of the Congo River. In the area where Hohmann works, the species is called edza.)
Now, I’m not willing to take Parker’s word for this (how could he be sure it’s not indigenous?), but it’s certainly plausible, and the dictionary etymologies don’t inspire confidence: “Native name for the animal” (OED), “Of central African origin” (AHD), and the refreshingly honest “origin unknown” (Merriam-Webster). Anybody know anything more about the origins of the word?
(Takayoshi Kano and Toshisada Nishida propose, absurdly, to replace “bonobo” with “bilia” as the English term because “the term bonobo is not understood at all in the only country where P. paniscus is living, the Democratic Republic of Congo… Here, bilia is the common name for this ape,” as if there were only one language in the third largest country in Africa. They add “As a matter of fact, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the single form is elia, and bilia is the plural form. However, we would be able to use bilia as singular and ‘bilias’ as the plural form since the term would be incorporated into English”: they want to use a local word so the locals will be happy, but they want to use it ungrammatically in local terms. At any rate, the proposal is obviously quixotic, but I mention it because it looks to me like their “elia” could be related to the article’s “edza.”)
(Executive summary of the article: bonobos have been studied mainly in captivity, and excessively far-reaching conclusions have been drawn about their sexuality, peaceableness, and difference from chimps; studying them in the wild is very, very difficult.)