• orangutan •
ê-ræng-ê-tæn • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A large, very placid arboreal ape (Pongo pygmaeus) with long red hair and long arms, still found in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra though no longer in other habitats, such as Java and the Southeast Asian mainland.
Notes: The pronunciation of this word often trips up speakers. The temptation to repeat the [ng] of the second syllable in the final one is so strong for US speakers that Merriam-Webster has given in and listed orangutang as an acceptable spelling. American Heritage allows orangoutang, indicating some confusion even among the experts. We suggest that we stick with the original, explained in the Word History.
In Play: If we are going to use this word, we had better hurry. The numbers of these delightful, relaxed cousins are rapidly diminishing: "The expansion of the lumber business in Southeast Asia is threatening all of the orangutans' habitats." Soon they may only inhabit zoos: "The orangutan and I watched each other at the zoo this afternoon but it wasn't clear who was the exhibit and who, the spectator."
Word History: In Malaysian orang means "man" and utan means "forest" giving us "man of the forest". Interestingly, however, this term in Malay usually refers to a wild or uncivilized person and not to what we call an orangutan. The Malays prefer calling this animal a mawas. No doubt the Dutch physician, Bontius, who first used the term to refer to the pongid in 1631, thought the Malays would not mind if he misappropriated the word for Western readers. (Peter Melville of Rotterdam suggested we explore this intriguing word to remind us of the delicate state of the existence of orangutans.)
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