This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Words To Use Today: lemurs and lemures.

So what's the connection between lemurs and lemures?

Er...well, to start with, what are lemurs and lemures?

lemur is a primate, which makes it the same sort of animal as you are (assuming you're human). There are about a hundred types of lemur of various shapes and sizes - in fact until man arrived on the lemurs' homeland of Madagascar there was a lemur as big as a male gorilla - but most of the species have only been identified since the 1990s.

A sportive lemur (small body, long legs, brown fur, large eyes, and thick, furry tail) clings to the side of a tree, with its head turned towards the camera.
Sahamalaza sportive lemur. It's called sportive because jumps around a lot.

So, what's so special about lemurs? All sorts of things. Some hibernate, some are awake in both the day and the night, some breed all year round.

Some lemur societies have female bosses.

Many lemurs have a toilet-claw (but it's all right, your mind can stop boggling, it's only used scratching and grooming).

And last, but not least, some lemurs are impossibly cute:

A tiny mouse lemur holds a cut piece of fruit in its hands and eats
Mouse lemur

And so what about lemures?

Well, lemures are not at all cute. They're Roman spirits of the dead, and nasty, vengeful they are too, often with a chip on their shoulders about not being buried properly. Brrr! They were such a nuisance to the Romans that the Romans held a festival called Lemuria every year to exorcise them.

Right. So what's the connection between lemurs and lemures?

Well, when Carl Linnaeus was giving all the living things on Earth their names he wasn't always entirely clear which creatures were related to which, and as it happened he bunged all the lemurs in with the lorises and colugos.

I call them lemurs [after the ghosts], he said (talking about the slender loris) because they go around mainly by night, in a certain way similar to humans, and roam with a slow pace.

In some ways calling lemurs after ghosts is quite reasonable because lemurs do tend to have reflective eyes, and some of them make spooky noises. But that wasn't why they got called lemurs.

By coincidence, there's an old Malagasy tradition that lemurs are the souls of ancestors. But, I mean, look at this sweetie.

Cat-sized primate with large, membranous ears, black, coarse fur, long, skinny fingers, and forward-facing eyes climbing along a tree branch; its eyes shining yellow, reflecting back the light from the camera flash

A ghost? How unfair is that???

Word To Use Today: lemur/lemures. These words come from Linnaeus and the Romans.



  1. I'm not sure, but I think that last lemur is a cousin of the devil!
    Did you notice that hand/paw?
    I did, and did a search for aye aye hand - yikes!
    The name lemure seems very apt for them!

    1. That aye aye isn't very photogenic, is it. Oh dear. In real life...well, in real life you can't see them very well because they're active in the dark, but they are extraordinarily fluid and silent, moving through the branches like, er, ghosts.