I am deluged by an eructation in the twitterverse in which we are encouraged to reminisce on what we think the word ‘bonobo’ means, and where we first heard it. I think you need to respond as follows: (HT Ed Gerstner).
@Sheril_: Quick poll: Do you know what a bonobo is? If so, where have you heard about them? (please RT, we’re trying to get large sample)
Now, before I received this request I was always confident I knew what a bonobo was. I’d read about them in a rather good book by primatologist Frans Der Waal. But now I am confronted with the word, I am no longer sure. It’s like that sensation you get on the repetition of a word or phrase, that if you repeat it enough, it will start to lose all meaning and become nothing more than a random string of syllables. You can try this yourself with these handy examples.
Ipswich is the Centre of Human Civilization
‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins is a book of Startling Insight and Profundity
See what I mean?
So, once I’d tried this with ‘bonobo’, I was left with three somewhat bouncy – one might even say perky – syllables, gamboling along like so many playful puppies. Once that was achieved, I felt free to wonder what the word might actually mean. My first stab was that whatever it means, it’s just ‘obonob’, spelled backwards. I always thought that an obonob was a kind of biscuit, but on Google I found links to obscure musicians and Reading Football Club. However, given the easy elision between ‘obonob’ and ‘Hob-Nob’ and thus ‘Hob’ and ‘hobgoblin’, one might imagine a place for small creatures called ‘obonobs’ in folklore – small, malevolent sprites, perhaps opposite in character to the supposedly cheerful, outgoing character of the bonobo. But that still doesn’t allow us anywhere near its meaning. After all, the name for something is different from the something being named, as Gandalf and Humpty Dumpty both recognised. It was time for me to broaden my search.
The delicious sound of the word – a soft lingual wossname lovingly nestled between two rounded, wholesome labials – offers itself to music. I can just imagine a song by the Beach Boys, a kind of hybrid between Barbara Ann and Kokomo, you can already hear how it would go,
Bo-bo-bo/ bo-bonobo/ Bo-bo-bo/ bo-bonobo
Yep, that’s already sending up some good vibrations. Not that this means anything, either, or at least, nothing more than anything ever does in pop music. I mean, who did put the ‘bop’ in the ‘bop-shoowop-shoowop’, or, indeed, the benzedrine in Mrs Murphy’s ovaltine?1.
And does anyone care?
No further advanced towards a meaning for the word ‘bonobo’ I offer a number of fairly random leads. It’s up to you to take them, but if you do, I take no responsibility for anything that might happen to you when you get there.
1) Whatever it means, ‘bonobo’ could score 27 points if placed over a triple-word score in Scrabble.
2) ‘Bonobo Mansions’ is an Edwardian mansion block near Gloucester Road tube station. Once popular with Tory grandees of an earlier era, it has since fallen into a quiet decline.
3) A ‘bonobo’ is a species of African talking drum. Often thought to be a close cousin to the djembe, it is actually quite different, being a diminutive of a larger drum called the bom-bom and a truly gigantic one called the boum.
4) The practice of doing legal work for good causes, without cost.
5) The lead singer of U2.
(1) Mr Murphy’s lawyer reminds me that any suggestion that he did it will be treated as libelous. In a statement, Mr Murphy said that everyone forgets that the same person or persons unknown put nembutal in his overalls, which allowed Mrs Murphy to get away with it for as long as she did.