Know Your Words

Baboons, This Post Is for You

Papio-hamadryas-headTo the baboons who joined forces in an unfortunately thwarted attempt to free themselves from a Texas animal research facility, the Butter Lamb salutes you! Thank you for reminding us to never grow accustomed to captivity and keep striving for freedom from our oppressors!  The following post is for you!

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines baboon as follows:

1. A grotesque figure (perhaps of a baboon) used in architecture or decorative work*.
2. A member of one of the great divisions of the Simiadae  or monkeys, distinguished by a long, dog-like snout, large canine teeth or tusks, capricious cheek-pouches, and naked callosities on the buttocks. They are inhabitants of Africa, Southern Asia, and the adjacent islands.
3. Figurative: as a term of abuse.

The OED goes on to say that first use of baboon dates back to 1409. Since that was many moons ago, I checked to my book of selected words from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of  1755 (Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection) to see if it had an entry for baboon. It does.

babo’on. (babouin, Fr. It is supposed by Skinner to be the augmentation of babe, and to import a great babe.) A monkey of the largest kind.

Who’s Skinner? That would be Stephen Skinner, author of the 1671 work, Etymologicum Linguae Anglicanae. No, I haven’t read it.

Speaking of etymology, though, it seems Johnson and Skinner were right: baboon is connected to the French word babouin, a word meaning “lip.”

As Eric Partridge writes in Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English:

baboon comes from Middle English baboyne (or babewyn): Middle French babuin (French babouin): from babine, lip, “the baboon having prominent lips.” This word is in turn “influenced by the cognate Middle French baboue, a grimace.”

When it comes to etymology, Eric Partridge seems to be one of those dudes that other etymologically inclined dudes look to for insight and direction, so you can often expect his take on a word’s history to be recycled by others.  As a case in point,consider the entry for baboon in the (Ayto) Dictionary of World Origins.

The origin of baboon is obscure, but it seems that the notion underlying it may be that of ‘grimacing’ … it has been speculated that there may be a connection with Old French baboue ‘grimace.’ However that may be, it was certainly in Old French that the word first surfaced, as babuin, and originally meant ‘gaping figure’ (as in a gargoyle). This alternative meaning was carried over when the Old French word was borrowed into English, where it remained a live sense of baboon until the 16th century.

The entry for baboon in the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories treads similar (but not exactly the same) waters.

Adopted from Old French babuin or from medieval Latin babewynus, the base sense was probably Old French baboue ‘muzzle’ or ‘grimace.’ Its use in zoology is perhaps inspired by the exaggerated facial expression typical of an ape’s behavior.

Medieval Latin? What happened to Middle English? Was that a typo? Maybe. For whatever it’s worth, the word babewynus does not appear in my copy of the Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary.

Not surprisingly, the the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories repeats the information in the Oxford English Dictionary relating to architecture. “The first recorded sense of baboon known at present is ‘a grotesque figure’ used in architectural carving, seen in all manner of gaping poses as gargoyles on ancient buildings.”

I know what you’re thinking: “This is all great, Joe3, but what does it mean if one dreams of a baboon?” Glad you asked. “To dream of apes, monkeys, gorillas, or baboons,” says the Dream Dictionary from A to Z, “suggests a link with the impulsive, imprudent, inquisitive side of ourselves, such as the self-centered grabbing of food, or sexual gratification without concern for the needs of the other person.”

Yikes, that’s not very nice. Thankfully, the Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols puts baboons in a more flattering light.

The baboon was worshiped in Egypt as a divine being. Being large, white, stooping and having an erect penis and frequently a disk of the moon on its head, the baboon was the incarnation of the moon god Thoth, the protective patron of scholars and scribes who also often appears as a divine messenger, and as a guide of souls.**

We’ll have to leave it at that. You go baboons! Be the guides of souls that you are!

___________________________________
Notes (and comments):

* Didn’t see that one coming. Not sure about that architectural reference in the first definition of baboon, I consulted the Penguin Dictionary of Architecture. It did not have an entry for baboon, but it did have an entry for grotesque, which conforms to the definition in the OED. It did not, however, mention baboons.

** Baboon genitalia? Really? This is why I love dictionaries and other references. You can’t make this stuff up.

 

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