The New Yorker has published one of its occasional archival issues (I can never decide whether I’m more pleased by the chance to read classic articles or irritated by the penny-pinching at the expense of writers who aren’t dead and could be contributing), and Emily Hahn’s 1987 Talk of the Town piece about the renovation of the Central Park zoo included the sentence “We’re also going to put in colobus monkeys, those beautiful black-and-white animals, and tamarins and squirrel monkeys.” I wasn’t familiar with the word colobus and couldn’t proceed until I had looked it up and knew how to pronounce it; Merriam-Webster says “ˈkä-lə-bəs” (and provides an audio file) and the OED agrees (British English /ˈkɒləbəs/ KOL-uh-buhss, U.S. English /ˈkɑləbəs/ KAH-luh-buhss), but AHD also provides an alternative with penultimate stress (kə-lō′-bəs). (Oddly, both M-W and AHD have it entered under the collocation “colobus monkey” even though it occurs by itself: the OED has citations like “is doubtless a Colobus” and “the red colobus occupies the upper storey [of forest], the black colobus the middle and the olive colobus the main closed canopy storey.”) But the etymology, to quote the OED, is “modern Latin (J. K. W. Illiger Prodromus systematis mammalium et avium (1811) 69), < Greek κολοβός docked”; in other words, the penultimate vowel is short, and the stress should (by the traditional rules) be on the first syllable. I can only hope that the innovative (and wrong, dammit) version recorded by AHD is but a blip and will vanish from (hypothetical and, alas, unlikely) future editions. It could, of course, spread and triumph in the (hypothetical and unlikely) event that English speakers start talking en masse about such monkeys, and in that case I would have to grit my teeth and accept it as I have been forced to accept so many other innovations that go against my personal Sprachgefühl, but I will carry on stressing the first syllable as God and J. K. W. Illiger intended.

(It also strikes me as odd that Illiger et al. felt the need to create a Latinate name rather than borrowing one from a local language of Gabon, Angola, or wherever, but I guess that’s the nineteenth century for you.)


  1. I think I learned the word (with penultimate stress) from this Simpsons scene sometime in the mid-90s.

  2. So the Simpsons are to blame! Damn them! Damn them all to hell!!

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Interference from Columbus, I suppose.

  4. Weirdly enough, being a Simpsonshead, I could’ve sworn two minutes ago that I’d only ever heard the antepenultimate-stress version.

  5. What Yuval said.

    I doubt if Marge, or any Simpsons character, could prompt me to doubt my previous pronunciation of a word — unless it was specifically American vocabulary, like when Parks and Recreation corrected me on Terre Haute.

  6. January First-of-May says

    I only know the word from Gerald Durrell (in the Russian translation: Поймайте мне колобуса).

    Google says there’s also been a TV show about it; I wonder if any episodes survive (unlikely, for a late-60s BBC production, but who knows), and if so, how they pronounced the word.

  7. In my idiolect, colobus does not seem to be word; it indeed only exists in the compound (?) colobus monkey. And, while some of the other citations appear to indicate that bare colobus does have some currency, at least among primatologists, the orthography of “is doubtless a Colobus“—-with capitalization and italics—indicate that it is being used a formal genus name, rather than an English word. (Whether a name exists in taxonomy is basically orthogonal to whether it functions as a word in natural language; the situation is quite analogous to other kinds of proper names.)

    As to pronunciation, I would consider anything other than initial stress to be essentially an error. I’m not a big fan of The Simpsons, but I have seen plenty of episodes over the years, particularly ones from the 1990s. However (as with Star Trek) it appears that my episode preferences are atypical. Some of the most popular episodes of the show (for example, the monorail episode and the episode about Jedediah Springfield), I just cannot stand. That Stonecutters episode with the monkeys is another one I really dislike.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    The neo-Latin “colobus” seems to just be a Latinization of Gk. κολοβός. Back in the 19th century when you might reasonably assume that zoologists with a variety of different (European) L1’s would know the learned languages, that would tell them something kinda sorta descriptive about the genus (the shape of the thumb, sez wikipedia) when a word Latinized from Umbundu or whatnot would be completely opaque to them (even assuming it had a transparent meaning in Umbundu beyond “that particular sort of monkey,” which may well not be the case).

    ETA: one source says κολοβός has no obvious PIE etymology and is thus assumed to have been borrowed by Gk. from some non-IE substrate language. Perhaps a Kongo one? David Eddyshaw would know what the most likely candidate would be …

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    See also the Linnaean name of this wacky-looking Inner-Asian feline:

  10. Interference from Columbus, I suppose.

    Or colossus?

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    David Eddyshaw would know what the most likely candidate would be

    Buli kolubiri “testicle”; the semantic connection is obvious, owing to the notable prevalence of Naturism in the Colobus monkey community.

  12. @Brett – the monorail episode had plenty of detractors when it first aired. Up until that point the Simpsons had remained character driven and somewhat grounded in reality. Some early fans saw that episode as a big misstep and were not pleased. In retrospect that complaint reminds of early Rolling Stones‘ fans who felt Beggars’ Banquetwas mediocre and the Stones were at their peak as an R&B band. Not necessarily wrong, but made irrelevant by the subsequent cultural juggernaut.

  13. Same for Fleetwood Mac moving on from blues.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    I should think _Their Satanic Majesties Request_ would fit better in Vanya’s analogy, but maybe he’s known a different subspecies of elderly Stones enthusiasts than I have?

  15. As an elderly Stones enthusiast, I can state that I had no serious problems with their output until Goats Head Soup, and even then I maintained hope until well into the ’80s. I think Dirty Work was the last one I was inveigled into actually buying. I didn’t mind their changing styles, but I drew the line at actual sucking.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    _Dirty Work_ is the first (chronologically speaking) Stones studio album that to this day I have never actually listened to all the way through, although just yesterday I was thinking about changing that in the Interests of Science. The prior album (_Undercover_) felt like enough of a depressing rip-off that I didn’t feel obligated to give them another chance. Although I was in those days not in a very forgiving mood toward aging Boomer favorites – by ’85 or thereabouts every single Sixties-era artist with the sole and notable exception of Van Morrison appeared to have badly lost the thread, even those like the Kinks (or Bowie, if conceptualized as originally a late-Sixties rather than early-Seventies guy) who had seemed to have it together into the early Eighties. Lou Reed’s amazing early-Eighties renaissance of three-count-’em-three non-sucky albums in a row from ’82-’84 (a consistency never previously seen in his solo career) ended with a thud with a really shitty album in ’86.

    _Goats Head Soup_ is an interesting Rorschach. It’s a very sucky album compared to its immediate predecessors but a very good album compared to its immediate successors. Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Some of the most popular episodes of the show (for example, the monorail episode and the episode about Jedediah Springfield), I just cannot stand.

    Although I am just as ready as the next guy to condemn, and even readier, it had never occurred to me to strongly dislike (or even like) an episode of a cartoon series. Thanks for the tip ! I guess I’m not cut out to take such things seriously, without a bit of prompting.

  18. I am too indifferent to either the Simpsons or the Stones to.condemn them either as a whole or in part.

  19. The Simpstones?

  20. Never having been a particular fan of the Rolling Stones, or really even known anyone (except one of my high school teachers) who was a big fan, I have never really associated Stones songs with albums; I only got to know them from singles airplay. So their album titles have never been very prominent in my mind.

    As a result, it had never previously occurred to me that the album title “Goats Head Soup” was obviously the inspiration for Spinal Tap’s “Shark Sandwich.”

  21. Goats Head Soup was recorded in Jamaica, … [wp]

    … where making soup out of a goat’s head is an actual thing. (And delicious! from what I sampled in Chapeltown, Leeds’ Caribbean festival.)

    Inspired by their Jamaican surroundings they decided on the album title Goats Head Soup, which is meant to evoke the atmosphere of Jamaican Obeah Voodoo.

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