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.)


  1. In case you are ever inclined to take requests:
    It was actually another term in the article that caught my attention. The bonobos are popularly believed to be more loving than chimps because they have been observed in zoos to copulate in the “missionary position.” Where does this term come from? Are there other terms that predated this one? And what are the origins of the term used to describe what chimpanzees do — apparently not the m.p.?

  2. Well, here‘s Uncle Cecil’s explanation; if anyone has more exact information, this thread seems like as good a place as any to provide it.

  3. Love, Sex and Marriage: A Historical Thesaurus s.v. Missionary Position.
    And, uhm, which a tergo term did you have in mind? Probably not monstruosos et bestiales concumbendi modos.

  4. Anybody got online access to Current Anthropology? (It’s not in JSTOR.)

  5. Darn cookies. Okay, I’ll just copy / paste.
    Missionary Positions: Christian, Modernist, Postmodernist, Robert J. Priest et al., Current Anthropology, Vol. 42, No. 1. (Feb., 2001), pp. 29-68.

    In the late 1960s and early 1970s “the missionary position” became widespread as a technical expression for face-to-face man-on-top sexual intercourse. It was accompanied by standard (and undocumented) stories as to the origin of the expression, stories featuring missionaries and either Polynesians, Africans, Chinese, Native Americans, or Melanesians. By the late 1980s and 1990s the expression had become a core symbol in modernist and postmodernist moral discourses. This paper examines accounts of the origin of the expression, provides evidence that it originated in Kinsey’s (mis)reading of Malinowski, analyzes the symbolic elements of the missionary-position narrative as synthesizing modernist objections to Christian morality, analyzes the “missionary position” in postmodernist narratives as synthesizing postmodernist objections to modernist morality, and explores some of the functions of this myth within the academy.

  6. Well found!

  7. I see an interesting pattern here, that I’ve observed amongst other groups of humans also:
    Any mention of a sexual topic draws away the focus of the original topic (usually without return).
    This is most notable amongst the more proletariat groupings, but not unobserved elsewhere (even amongst “missionaries”).
    And why shouldn’t we take more interest in the reproduction of the human species, over that of pygmy chimps?

  8. When I first fell in love with bonobos in the early 1990’s, none of my acquaintances knew a bonobo from a bonsai tree. Now, these amazing apes, who swing with each other as well as from the trees, have become rather famous.
    Of course, with fame comes defamation. So I wasn’t surprised to see Ian Parker gently but firmly attempting to deflate the bouyant, mystical aura of the bonobo in the esteemed pages of The New Yorker, subtly deriding the work of some of the bonobos’ best friends in the human world, and hinting ominously that his article would be debunking the central ideas of what I call “The Bonobo Way.” These include the notions that 1) bonobos engage in various, rather elaborate forms of pleasure sex, not just reproductive sex, 2) they do not seem to deliberately murder or make war on members of their own species like common chimps and humans do, and 3) females wield considerably more power than in other primate species.
    Parker does provide a fascinating, sometimes breathtakingly descriptive look at the daily life of a bonobo researcher in the Congolese Rainforest, as well as a comprehensive overview of bonobo primatology politics. He is particularly telling when he writes “The challenges of bonobo research call for chimpanzee vigor, and this leads to animosities,” including, I would add, the strong, almost vicious desire to debunk one another.
    But in the end, Parker’s article debunks nothing. He gives a few examples of bonobos committing acts of violence, but not murder, at least not with any real evidence. No one has ever said bonobos are angels, just that as primates, they are relatively peaceful. They have never been observed engaging in calculated murder or organized warfare such as has been observed in common chimps and, of course, humans. Parker’s piece doesn’t include anything even approaching a bonobo war party. Interestingly, almost all of the examples of violence mentioned in the article are perpetrated by females, buttressing the notion that females rule, at least in certain vital areas of life in Bonoboland.
    Then there’s the sex. Most experts agree that bonobos tend to combine food-sharing and sex. This is one reason why Japanese Primatologist Takayoshi Kano got to observe so much sex and sensuality among bonobos in the wild: he fed them. Gottfried Hohmann, the primatologist “star” of Parker’s piece who takes him into the Heart of Darkness, doesn’t feed the bonobos. Both approaches seem to be legitimate ways to gather information, each having its pros and cons. When you feed or “provision” bonobos, they’re a lot more likely to hang around you, engaging in intimate activities. When you don’t feed them, you’re not influencing their behavior so much. But they’re also not so inclined to get near you, let alone have sex in front of you.
    They’re also more likely to catch and kill their own food. After all, they’re hungry! Wild bonobos must be especially famished since their rainforest home has been decimated by constant human warfare, bushmeat poaching and the logging industry. The stress of all this ecological devastation and the reduction of their normal food supply, as well as constantly seeing their family members and friends being violently slaughtered by hunters, must have a traumatizing effect on the bonobos still left in the jungle, just as polar bears have lately been turning to cannibalism because longer seasons without ice keep them from getting to their natural food. It will be illuminating to hear from Hohman when he finally publishes papers on his recent discoveries in the wilds of war-riddled, ecologically damaged Lui Kotal. But the observations he has made thus far do not negate the earlier, pre-war findings of Kano and others.
    By the way, I had never heard from any of the experts that bonobos were vegetarians. Kano had reported that bonobos occasionally eat meat of other species, like we do (actually, a lot less than we do).
    Hohmann’s oddest observation is about female bonobo “g-g rubbing,” genito-genital rubbing, “hoka-hoka,” or what Parker refers to as “frottage,” when one female rubs her swollen vulva against the vulva of another. Hohman and his team have observed this numerous times, as have many other primatologists. “But does it have anything to do with sex?” Hohman asks and then answers himself, “Probably not.”
    Since when is rubbing engorged genitalia against your partner’s engorged genitalia, often while embracing, French-kissing and/or having what looks like an orgasm, not “sex”? Is Hohmann limiting his definition of “sex” only to intercourse? That is hardly appropriate for a creature that is known for engaging in sex for pleasure (including what we might call “bisexuality”) more than reproduction.
    Hohman goes on to wonder why “the males, the physically superior animals, do not dominate the females, the inferior animals?…It is not only different from chimpanzees but it violates the rules of social ecology.”
    Well, it doesn’t violate The Bonobo Way. As Kano, Franz de Waal, Amy Parish and other primatologists have observed: bonobo males appear to be more docile than chimp males (or even than bonobo females), in part because they remain under the calming influence of their mothers until they die. And then there’s the fact that bonobo males get a lot of sex from those so-called “inferior” but sexually aggressive females. That’s right: Peace through pleasure. Good sex diffuses tension. And you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.
    Hohmann appears to be a meticulous scientist. But no matter how “objective” you try to be, the human personality still shines through the researcher’s conclusions. While Kano’s image is one of gentle collaboration, Hohmann’s is one of “chilliness,” being “very difficult to work with.” Parker writes about an incident where Hohman “loomed over” a local villager “wagging his finger. ‘It’s good to remind him now and then how short he is,’ Hohmann later said, smiling.” Folks who like to throw their physical weight around in the course of a verbal debate tend to find parallels for their own bullying tendencies in nature.
    Well, primatologists aren’t angels either.
    Parker’s report on Hohmann’s work is important, especially since Hohmann hasn’t published much himself lately. But the article’s implication that anyone who is inspired by the “Make Love Not War” chimps (both to save them from extinction, as Sally Coxe’s Bonobo Conservation Initiative is working hard to accomplish, and to understand and improve our own lives, as some of us try to do by following The Bonobo Way) is deluded is irresponsible and wrong. In classic New Yorker style, Parker’s critiques are measured and nuanced, even polite. His derision sneaks up on you like a quiet “chimp-bothering” primatologist. In the end, he brings no myth-shattering news that hasn’t already been published. Though their lives in the wild are, of course, more violent than in captivity (and with the destruction being wreaked upon their environment, it would be hard to blame them for turning intoa new species of primate-psychopaths), the bonobos still seem to live, relative to other wild primates, by The Bonobo Way of Peace through Pleasure.
    Nevertheless, many right-leaning bloggers, including the Wall Street Journal’s gleeful headline ”Bonobo Apes Might Not Be Politically Correct, After All” and Jack Rich’s “Shades of Margaret Mead,” are already picking up this highbrow critique of the “left-bank chimps” and running with it, referring to it as an official indictment of sexual freedom, women’s rights, environmentalism, communitarianism, ethical hedonism, the peace movement and liberal thinking in general, not to mention the bonobos themselves.
    I appreciate Parker’s in-depth reporting on the primatology spats and evocative writing about the Congo. I know he worked hard on this piece; he spent an hour talking to me for the sake of just one sentence. I am also grateful for the excruciating fieldwork in which Hohmann is engaged. All research on bonobos – whether Kano studying them as they frolicked in his sugarcane field, De Waal reporting upon bonobo behavior in captivity, Richard Wrangham comparing bonobos with other great apes, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh communicating via computer with her primate “genius” Kanzi, Hohman running after the bonobos as they run away from him in the thick of the jungle, or Martin Surbeck catching tree-dwelling apes’ golden showers in a lacrosse stick-like container – are worthwhile. One observer’s findings have not discounted the others, at least for now.
    Bonobos are no angels. But as far as we know, they still deserve the distinguished title of the Make Love Not War Chimpanzees. Hoka-Hoka! Bonobos Forever…

  9. dearieme says

    Does “bonobo” carries just a hint of “bongo-bongo land”? Might it therefore be in danger of becoming Politically Incorrect?

  10. Looks like full text of the article will require a physical trip to the library during the week.
    In the meantime, it turns out that TSD did an update, citing the same article. This gives a few more details. As so often happens, once you know precisely what to look for, there is a shorter path to finding it. (At which point, proper editing can hide the messy truth, if you like.)
    So, here’s Kinsey and here’s the most linguistically interesting bit from Malinowski.

  11. I have made the missionary-position article available at ccil dot org slash tilde cowan slash missionary dot pdf. There are no guarantees that it’ll stay there forever. It’s 41 pages and 4.9 MB long, and I haven’t read it yet myself.

  12. Excellent. Thanks loads.
    So, to wrap up the origin, Kinsey has mixed together three things that Malinowski said separately and reported them as one (loc cit).

    The article is worth having a look at. In particular, it includes both comments and a reply to comments after the paper proper. In one of these, a correspondent claims to have heard it right after WWII from ex-servicemen-become-undergraduates in pubs who got it from the Indian Army. Priest points out that such men are actually as likely to have been exposed to Kinsey (directly or indirectly, and perhaps in lectures at universities before in print) as the Kama Sutra or Decameron. And, of course, such fuzzy memories without documentation always come up in lexicography.
    And finally, Priest mentions another earlier synonym that wasn’t in the thesaurus linked to above, viz., matrimonial.

  13. And yet nobody knows the etymology of the word.

  14. My observation continues to hold true…shall we say “make love, not etymologies”?
    Poor old languagehat…this thread went askew from the very start, no?

  15. Segueing us back to apes, it looks like in Tratz and Heck’s 1954 paper, Der afrikanische Anthropoide “Bonobo”, eine neue Menschenaffengattung, they felt the need to describe the difference using the terms more canum and more hominum.
    On alternative bonobo names, here is another paper from the same site as the bilia in LH’s original post.

  16. Ginger Yellow says

    I’ve got Frans de Waal’s Bonobo book at home. I’m pretty sure it discusses the nomenclature history.

  17. Apparently nobody reading here in 2007 had heard of the misread-packing-crate story, which was accepted by AHD in 2011, but rejected by OED in 2018 as “cannot be substantiated” (etymology quoted in full at Language Hat).

    Hat: I’m not willing to take Parker’s word for this (how could he be sure it’s not indigenous?)

    By reading the literature; primatologists had been arguing for decades over replacing “pygmy chimpanzee” with “bonobo”, and the failure to find the word in languages of the Congo was a debating point.

    There *was* one proposed source, attributed to Father François Bontinck, a Belgian missionary and scholar of Bantu languages (see L’invention du bonobo): he is said to have connected it to some proto-Bantu root meaning “ancestor”. But that doesn’t seem to have panned out to anybody else’s satisfaction.

    Hat: as if there were only one language in the third largest country in Africa … their “elia” could be related to the article’s “edza.”

    EAZA Best Practice Guidelines: Bonobo gives a list of local names:

    The Lingala word used for both chimpanzees and bonobos is mokomboso or mokonbusu, but is often not recognized by local people in areas where bonobos occur. Indigenous names are edja or edja mbanda, engombe (plural: bingombe), elya (plural: bylia), elyamana, or elia (plural: bilia); ifuk (plural: tofuku); ebubu.

    I cut all the citations for space, but here are a couple of them:

    Pan paniscus, Sometimes a Linguistic Issue (Maniacky 2006) says the words similar to edja, elya come from the Mongo group of languages.

    Taboo of eating bonobo among the Bongando people in the Wamba region (Lingomo & Kimura 2009) gives a derivation of elia “from the verb mb-ela (to miss) or mb-elia (to block). The Bongando consider the bonobo a species that has ‘missed’ becoming human, or one that was ‘blocked’ on the path to becoming human.”

  18. ktschwarz says

    Pronunciation note from the New Yorker article:

    We had exchanged small talk over a pink tablecloth, establishing, first, that the British say “bo-noh-bo”; Americans, “bahn-obo”; and Germans something in between.

    This is not corroborated by dictionaries (not that dictionaries are always reliable on pronunciation variants): some have the US/UK distinction the other way around, most (especially post-2000) accept both. Probably those were just the personal preferences of the one Brit, one American, and one German at the table.

    I think this is a word that was spread mainly by writing, and everybody just guessed randomly at how to pronounce it.

    Currently on Youglish, “bo-noh-bo” has a strong lead in all English.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    If called upon to say the word (which I don’t think I ever actually have been), I’d put the stress on the first syllable.

  20. dito dito ditto the second syllable.

  21. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, famed bonobo researcher and an American, stresses the second syllable.

  22. So does the American clothing company Bonobos. Strangely they use /s/ at the end rather than /z/.

  23. It’s one of those words I try never to say out loud if I can help it. I think I started out stressing the second syllable because that seemed plausible, then heard somebody doing it the other way and fell into a phonetic phunk.

  24. David Marjanović says

    In German it’s /ˈbɔnɔbɔ/, following the three-identical-short-vowels pattern of Kanada, Panama, Ananas and sometimes Sahara.

    The Bongando consider the bonobo a species that has ‘missed’ becoming human, or one that was ‘blocked’ on the path to becoming human.”


  25. David Eddyshaw says

    The term elia comes from the verb mb-ela (to miss )

    I don’t think that Bantu languages work like that. Folk etymology, surely. The entire story seems pretty implausible (not that that proves anything.)

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder if it’s been elaborated somewhat to distance the speakers (who include one of the authors) from the Unfortunate Implications of the supposed derivation of elia from -ly-/-li-* “eat”, which is mentioned in ktschwartz’s first link?

    * Sic, despite what the first paper says (cognate with Kusaal di, and indeed the etymon is found throughout Volta-Congo.) I agree that it’s a very implausible derivation, still, though at least not outright impossible, like the mbela one.

  27. The Bongando consider the bonobo a species that has ‘missed’ becoming human, or one that was ‘blocked’ on the path to becoming human.”


    Well, if there were hominids in the Middle East, there would be hominds in the Bible (as someone’s sons or something). Cf. orangutan.

    Unless I am missing something and the ME of Christ’s time was a home to apes (and not just Syrian elephants and Iraqi hippos).

  28. And they bonobo’s goal was becoming humans is not the scientific view actually:)
    It is homocentric (homo as in homo, not as in homo-).
    They were meant to become something entriely different, maybe. Better than those nasty humans.

    I always thought that pigs are God’s plan B. That’s why eating them is a sin in some religions. Just logic (without homocentrism).

  29. From what I’ve read about Neanderthals, they were much nicer than we are, which is doubtless why we won out…

  30. Last I heard, pigs are uneaten, ultimately, because in Egypt they were the food of the unwashed southern tribes.

  31. David Marjanović says

    From what I’ve read about Neanderthals, they were much nicer than we are

    Apart from all the cannibalism – maybe.

    Last I heard, pigs are uneaten, ultimately, because in Egypt they were the food of the unwashed southern tribes.

    Interesting. The story I’ve encountered is that pig bones disappear quite suddenly from the archeological record of the people who quit the cities of Canaan and took up a more or less pastoral existence in the hills (at the occasion of some climatic and political upheaval or other), and that’s interpreted as a deliberate decision to be different.

  32. Apart from all the cannibalism – maybe.

    Oh, like we never do that!

  33. Bonobo mothers eat their dead babies. Just saying, not judging.

    Ed.: Or, in the popular press, “Hippy apes caught cannibalising their young”.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    If the Juju had meant us not to eat people,
    He wouldn’t have made us of meat!

  35. I, personally, am made of TVP.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    I, personally, am made of TVP

    Enough with this holier-than-thou attitude …

  37. Rodger Cunningham says

    It is homocentric (homo as in homo, not as in homo-).

    An awkward, hybrid, and unnecessary word. Prefer “anthropocentric.”

  38. In the universe where everything evolves into humans “anthropocentric” is a bit ambigous.

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