Small Names for Big Beasts

May, 2017 Word Stories

The wild theme continues in this month’s Word Stories. We examine two remarkably similar beasts that hail from opposite corners of the earth: the African plains and the highlands of Asia. Their names come from the languages of their respective human neighbours, who ungenerously endowed them with only three letters and a single syllable. Luckily for the yak and the gnu, they can compensate for their lexical modesty with physical size.


The yak is a bovine animal living in the high altitudes of Asia. The word yak is a late eighteenth-century addition to English, and seems to have been borrowed directly from the Tibetan word yak. One hypothesis suggests a possible cognate in yakwe “horse”, from Tocharian (an extinct branch of Indo-European languages spoken in modern-day western China and Central Asia). Early English attestations employ the longer name “Yak of Tartary”, specifying the general Eurasian region where the animal could be found.

As for the onomatopoeic yakto ya(c)k and yackety-yak, denoting idle talk and chatter, these are completely unrelated and only encountered in the second half of the twentieth century. A certain rhythmic, syncopated playfulness is perceivable in many of their literary occurrences: “She gets a buck’s worth of dimes and parks herself in the phone booth, and there she sits, yackity, yackity, yackity” (Margaret Millar, Beast in View, 1955); “She went yaketty-yak to Katy” (Stella Gibbons, A Pink Front Door, 1959; notice the alliteration of “yaketty-yak” with the character’s name); and so on.


Also called by their South African Dutch name wildebeest (meaning “wild beast” or “wild cattle”), gnus are large South African antelopes belonging to the genus Connochaetes (from the Ancient Greek words konnos “beard” and khaitē “mane”). The word gnu almost certainly comes from one of the so-called “click languages” spoken in southern Africa. The identification of the precise language of borrowing for gnu has proven difficult, and historical sources give more than one answer. Plausible etymons include the following African names for the antelope:

  • t’gnu, from Khoekhoe, a language spoken in Namibia. “t’” represents a single consonant, probably a palatal click (noted [ǂ]). This form is attested early, in the 1786 travelogue A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic Polar Circle, and Round the World […] by Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman.
  • i-ngu, from Xhosa, a Bantu click language.
  • !nu:, from one of the San languages (or “Bushman” languages), with the characters “!” and “:” representing two distinct click sounds.

Gnu’s first attestation in an English text is found in another eighteenth-century travelogue, Georg Forster’s Voyage Round the World, published in 1777 in London.

In contemporary English, gnu is usually pronounced as [nuː], sometimes as [njuː], and more rarely, taking the initial g into account, as [gˈnuː] or [gˈnjuː]. The general tendency is more and more to follow the pronunciation of older English words like gnosisgnaw and gnome, in which the initial g stays silent. (Compare with pneumaticpsyche and ptarmigan, that likewise omit the initial consonant when spoken.)

The collective noun, or “term of venery”, for a group of gnus has been playfully given in James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks (a classic reference on the subject), as an “implausibility” (!), alongside a “parliament” of owls, a “romp” of otters and a “gaze” of raccoons. In more serious contexts, a “herd” of gnus is probably more fitting.

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