Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The animal formerly known as Cheetah

The news of the death, aged 80, of Cheetah, the chimpanzee which allegedly featured in many Tarzan films, is sad, and has sent me scurrying to research the word ‘cheetah’ and to try to find out if there was some reason for naming a chimp after such a different kind of animal.

The all-too-brief report on the BBC website states that there was some dispute over the age of the animal, and noted that other animals had claims to have starred alongside Jonny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in the Tarzan films.  Specifically another chimpanzee, also called Cheeta (no ‘h’) was for a while supposed to have been in the films.  A comprehensive Wikipedia article takes the research further, listing sixteen animals which are claimed to have participated in the films and ensuing television series, including two named Jiggs and four for whom there is little data.  Furthermore the role is sometimes billed as Cheetah, sometimes Cheeta, sometimes Chita, and sometimes Cheta.  All of these correspond to the root-word for the feline quadruped’s name, the Hindi chita, from the Sanskrit chitraka, meaning ‘variegated or speckled’.  Interesting that the animal which we now associate with African savannahs should have a name which originates in India, but then European awareness of these animals derives from their use as tame animals used in antelope hunting in Asia – and this makes sense of their frequent appearance in late-Renaissance court paintings, apparently tamed and with a fairly sanguine attitude to their presence in human company.

Eric Partridge derives cheetah from the Sanskrit citra, meaning ‘marked, spotted, variegated’, a root which also leads to chintz, and to chit – a black mark on white paper, which became specifically used to give the sense of a written message; particularly appropriate for Cheeta(h) the chimp, whose main role in the Tarzan films was to convey messages.

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