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  • Writer's pictureJeannette De Wyze

How to say "bonobo"...

And, the mysterious origin of the popular name for the Pan paniscus ape.

By Jeannette De Wyze
Bonobo wades in water, white flower and lily pads float near.
Bonobo group relaxing at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary.

You say bo-noh-bo, I say bahn-obo? No problem! (Just don’t call this very special primate a pygmy chimpanzee.)

Either pronunciation of the word bonobo is acceptable, according to many dictionaries,

although folks who emphasize the second syllable may be winning out. The New American

Dictionary lists that pronunciation exclusively, and some of the world’s leading primate

scientists and conservationists (Frans de Waal, Claudine André, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh)

favor bo-noh-bo. So does the American clothing brand, Bonobos, which has even produced a

comic video about the elocutionary challenge of saying the company’s name.

No one suspected the species existed until the late 1800s.

In an online philological forum, one recent poster offered this explanation for the confusion:

“I think this is a word that was spread mainly by writing and everybody just guessed randomly at how to pronounce it.”

A Late Discovery