January 15, 2014

Case File #014.01.15: GNU

It is often claimed that German-born naturalist and travel writer Georg Forster, whose many journeys included Captain James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific, gave the word gnu to the English language when he published his book A Voyage Round the World in 1777. Yet he used the form gnoo, not gnu, and because of this, a growing number of etymologists are now cogently arguing that Forster simply Anglicized the Dutch gnoe, that language's term for the African wildebeest, and thus does not deserve credit for coining a brand new word. So then, you ask, what's the skinny on the Dutch word? Well, the Dutch gnoe first came into use in the mid-seventeenth century, initially appearing in the patois of Dutch explorers who had just returned from Africa. The explorers derived the term from the Khoikhoi word t'gnu (sometimes transliterated i-ngu), which speakers of that African language used in reference to various types of antelope, and so popular were the explorers' stories about the Dark Continent's flora and fauna that by the early eighteenth century, gnoe became the common Dutch word for the wildebeest. When Forster introduced his Anglicized version, gnoo, in the late eighteenth century, English speakers in the scientific community readily adopted it as a term for the African antelope. But the word's spelling fluctuated during its first several years of use, and for reasons not completely understood, the current gnu became the conventional form circa 1786.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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