Monday, 15 November 2010

Carib Cannibals

We shall now have a week of posts on tribes and the tremendous words that they have given to language. (Tribes are probably tribes because there were three (tri) tribes in ancient Rome).

When Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba he discovered that the natives called themselves Los de Caniba, he then sailed on to Haiti where they told him that they were called Caribes. This is because in the old Caribbean languages Ls, Ns and Rs were pretty much interchangeable (which must have been confusing if you were called Rory and ate lollies).

One word - Caribs - survived as the name of a sea. Canib, with a bal on the end, survived as the designation of the culinary eccentricities found in those tropical climes; for the Caribs were anthropophagi.

So that's the Ns and the Rs dealt with. But what (I hear you cry) of the Ls? Well, dear reader, that was a good question and well asked. Now can you think of a writer who set a play on an island? Can you? Can you think of the name of the savage character in that play? Can you? Well you damned well should, you bookless freak. Caliban in The Tempest.

Ban! Ban! Ca-Caliban!
Got a new master, get a new man.

Yeah, him. So far as anybody can tell Shakespeare took the name from his reading on shipwrecks and exploration that formed the basis of the his last play.

So Caribbean, Cannibal and Caliban all come from one word with an ambiguous consonant in the middle.

Columbus was terribly pleased to hear that they were Canibs, because he assumed that the Canibs were subjects of the Great Khan, and therefore that he had succeeded in reaching Asia through the West. In this the poor chap was mistaken, but it shows the hope and foolishness that etymological speculation may engender.

Now, like Othello, I have spoken...

...of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

Just on the offchance that you're interested, Othello is here alluding to the greatest travel book ever written: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which is a delightful filigree of fibs from the late fourteenth century. What's interesting about the Othello line is that Mandeville had been completely debunked a few years before Othello was written.

Mandeville's Travels was a wonderful medieval fantasy that could not stand up to the cruel siege of truth. There was even a satirical play put on in London about how foolish Mandeville's stories were, just before Othello came out. So Shakespeare is deliberately associating Othello with a foolish, mythical and laughable past.

Mandeville itself was partly based upon the Anglo Saxon Wonders of the East which contains this piece of information, which, like me, is more beautiful than true:

Then there is a certain island in the Red Sea where there is a race of men called by us Donestre. they are shaped like soothsayers from the head down to the navel, and the other part is similar to a man's body. And they know all human languages. When they see a man of a foreign race, they call him and his fellows with the names of known men, and with lying words they deceive him and seize him. and then, after that, they devour all of him, except the head, and then they sit and weep over the head.

The Donestre in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript


  1. How is a Soothsayer shaped?

  2. I've no idea. That's why I love the passage so.