Lemurs are pretty cute, aren’t they? With their big eyes, long ringed tails, and cheeky little hands: what’s not to love? Interestingly enough though, the story of their name is not so cute.
The name comes from the Latin word lemures, meaning spirits of the dead. It was chosen by Carl Linnaeus, founder of modern binomial nomenclature and initially applied to the slender loris, and then later expanded to include the lemurs we’re probably more familiar with. He claimed to have chosen the name because the slender loris was nocturnal and moved slowly, though I think he may have been influenced by the fact that it can look a little spooky too:
It seems a little unfair now on those cute little lemurs that they have such a morbid name. At least they can be comforted in the knowledge that they in turn have inspired the name of a mythical lost continent: Lemuria!
The existence of this supposedly sunken continent was hypothesised in 1864 by the English zoologist Philip L. Sclater. He wanted to explain why there were fossils similar to lemurs in India, but not in Africa, and suggested that a continent had previously existed joining Madagascar (which lemurs are native to) to India, and had sunk into the sea at some time. Though the theory has long been discredited, the idea of the lost continent has lingered on in the imagination, and is often used in works of fantasy, science fiction, and role-playing video games.
Finally, on the topic of Madagascar, we have Marco Polo to thank for the name, though it wasn’t exactly his finest hour. He got the island confused with Mogadishu (of Arabic origin) in Somalia, and came up with Madagascar through a faulty transliteration of Mogadishu from Arabic (transliteration is a translation process involving replacing individual letters). The island had previously been named Sao Loureno by Portuguese explorer Diogo Dias, but Madagascar proved more popular. Which might be for the best, as Madagascar has a more interesting ring to it. How many kids would flock to the cinema to see Sao Loureno 3: Europe’s Most Wanted? It’s just sad that neither Marco Polo nor Carl Linnaeus lived long enough to see the first Madagascar film and those hilarious lemurs…