Dear Editor:

Can you tell me about the origin of the word “orangutan”?

-J.B., Westfield, N.J.

Dear J.B.:

The orangutan, a native of Borneo and Sumatra, has been known to western Europe since the 17th century. The name “orangutan” is similar in most European languages. It is made up of two Malay words, “orang” meaning “person” and “hutan” meaning “forest.” The Malay word for this ape is “mawas,” however, and the precise origin of the compound “orangutan” is not known.

Most likely, Europeans borrowed “orangutan” from Bazaar Malay, a group of restructured forms of Malay used as common languages by the many non-Malay speakers of the Indonesian archipelago. Queried by Europeans about the name of the animal and not knowing the actual Malay word, inhabitants of the islands perhaps responded by making up the word “orangutan” (forest person) on the spot.

Ever since “orangutan” entered English, people have tended to pronounce it by rhyming the second and last syllables. In some European languages (including English) a “g” is sometimes added to the last syllable, but “orangutang” is not an accepted spelling.

Dear Editor:

I recently came across an unfamiliar usage in a book from the turn of the last century. “Betty” is used in this book to refer to some kind of crowbar, like a jimmy. I can’t find a definition for this use of “betty,” however. Do you have any record of the usage?

-H.W., Topeka, Kan.

Dear H.W.:

“Betty” was entered in the 1905 edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary with the following definition: “A short bar used by thieves to wrench doors open.” In the same edition, a “jimmy” was defined as “a crowbar used by burglars in breaking open doors.” By the third edition of Webster’s Collegiate, published in 1916, “betty” had only the following definition: “A man who busies himself with womanish affairs,” while the word “jimmy” was only slightly modified: “A short crowbar used by burglars.”

The use of “betty” to refer to a crowbar was thieves’ slang, and it goes back hundreds of years. The earliest known example of its use dates from 1700. In the early 19th century, “jemmy,” a nickname for “James,” came to be used in a similar way. The word eventually morphed into “jimmy” in American English, although “jemmy” is still the preferred spelling in Great Britain. “Betty,” on the other hand, seems to have lost its “crowbar” sense altogether. Its most familiar extended use now is in the American food term “brown Betty” or “apple brown Betty,” denoting a baked pudding of apples, bread crumbs, and spices.

Dear Editor:

Why isn’t “antidisestablishmentarianism” in the dictionary? It’s fairly common; ask any fourth-grader.

-D.W., Carrboro, N.C.

Dear D.W.:

Usage, usage, usage. Generations of schoolchildren have grown up believing that the longest word in the English language (excluding specialized scientific words and nonsense terms) is “antidisestablishmentarianism.” But very few folks ever found this word in their schoolroom dictionary. Why? Because although the word is often included in lists of long words, it appears so rarely in everyday writing and speech that dictionaries (even very large unabridged dictionaries) hardly ever include an entry for it.

One of the very few dictionaries that does enter “antidisestablishmentarianism” is the Oxford English Dictionary, the great 20-volume historical dictionary of our language. The OED defines it as “opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England,” but notes that its use in this sense is rare and that the word is “popularly cited as an example of a long word.”

Even the venerable OED can offer no actual examples of the word’s use, although it does include a single (1900) citation for the related noun “antidisestablishmentarian,” referring to “strong antidisestablishmentarians … (in) the North of Scotland.”



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