Orangutan: n. Orang ‘forest’ hutan ‘person’ or forest person in Malay
Orangutans belong to the great ape family, our closest biological relatives. This familial link is reflected in the word orangutan itself, which Malay speakers today can still recognise as deriving from the phrase orang hutan, which means “forest person”.
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This term goes back over a thousand years, contrary to the conventional belief that this word was coined by European visitors to Indonesia in the 17th century.
Surprisingly, the oldest surviving texts to use the word orangutan do not come from Sumatra or Borneo, where orangutans live today, but from the neighbouring island of Java. One of the oldest texts to mention orangutans is the 9th-century poem Rāmāyaṇa. Written in the Old Javanese language, the poem describes “the orangutans, all bearded, climbing up”.
The word orangutan came into Old Javanese from another archaic language related to modern Malay. These early appearances show the word was circulating among the archipelago’s languages well over a thousand years ago.
This origin as the phrase “forest person” shows for many centuries Southeast Asians have viewed orangutans as human-like creatures residing in the forest.
Originally published in The Conversation. Images by Craig Jones.
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