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Lilly Library

A Glossary of Ape

Edgar Rice Burroughs was not a lexicographer but an author of pulp fiction, dozens of adventure and science fiction novels. He was also an ardent proponent of eugenics. Nowadays, when you read one of his books, the racism is all too apparent, but they were immensely popular in twentieth-century America, part of American literary history and popular culture, even if we wish otherwise. One of his earliest novels, the foundation of his longest and most successful series, Tarzan of the Apes (1912), is no exception. The hero is supposedly a specimen of Anglo-Saxon superiority, a lost son of the English aristocracy, raised by talking apes and then regained. Even the apes are racists. For Burroughs, racial hierarchy was the natural order of things, and talking apes, though the lesser species, would surely agree … thought Burroughs.

Madeline Kripke rejected Burroughs’ ideology, but she added a particular imprint of Tarzan of the Apes to her collection, the “authorized Unabridged Edition prepared specially for young readers” published by Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin, in 1964. I never owned a copy of Whitman’s Tarzan of the Apes, but every American kid when I was growing up read Whitman books, because Whitman specialized in children’s literature and published stories about Disney characters and novelizations of popular television shows of the 1960s. Back then, the Hardy Boys mysteries and Nancy Drew mysteries were published by Grosset & Dunlap, but the Trixie Belden mystery series was published by Whitman Publishing — in genre fiction for children, then, Whitman was a major publisher.

If Madeline detested Burroughs’ racism — and I’m quite sure she was aware of it and did — then why collect Tarzan of the Apes? The answer lies in what Whitman added to its children-directed edition of the book. In other words, this post celebrates, not Burroughs, but some unknown person in the Whitman organization, who appended “an Official Ape–English Dictionary” to the novel. The word official often attracts children — the official decoder ring, the official membership card — and the glossary is clearly a marketing ploy, but that doesn’t make the lexicography of Ape language any less interesting, indeed, quite the opposite, as official elevates the glossary itself and relies on children’s interest in language, as well as in the mystery of talking apes. One can easily imagine a child imaginatively transported into the ape world, much as I had picnics with my stuffed Pooh, Piglet, and Eeyore under the covers before I fell asleep. But the characters in Winnie-the-Pooh all spoke English, even though they weren’t good at spelling — if you live among talking apes, perhaps you need a dictionary, at the beginning, at least, until you speak Ape like an ape.

Color book cover showing shirtless Tarzan swining on a vine with a chimpanzee friend.

The glossary includes 247 items and runs in double columns, pages 283–285, under the following justification: “Apes have a language that they taught to Tarzan when he was a child. That is what Edgar Rice Burroughs says, and he should know. Many of the terms are translatable into English and are used in the Tarzan books. Here is a list of ape words and their English meanings.” Of course, a badly conceived glossary might list arbitrary words with arbitrary meanings, but that’s not the case with the anonymously devised glossary of Ape at the end of Whitman’s Tarzan of the Apes.

First, there are phonological and semantic connections between some Ape words and their English equivalents. For instance, ab means ‘boy’, gash means ‘fang’, and the imitative histah means ‘snake.’ Of course, these isolated examples don’t describe the system of Ape language, however much they suggest creativity and deliberation on the glossarist’s part. Other entries, however, do illustrate aspects of a system, as well as the glossarist’s recognition that the glossary ought to reflect a systematic (if barely articulated) language and the sound assumption that readers would respond better to a more language-like language. Parts of the body begin regularly with a prefix of sorts: b’wang for ‘hand’, b’yat for ‘head’, b’zan for ‘hair’, and b’zee for ‘foot’. Similarly, kalan ‘female’ and atan ‘male’, combine with the prefix por– to become por-kalan ‘wife’ and por-atan ‘husband’, respectively. Ape, invented by a human, unsurprisingly operates rather like a human language.

First page of the "Ape-English Dictionary" appended to this young reader's edition of Tarzan

Burroughs espoused bad ideas, but he also admired dictionaries, and Tarzan learned English by reading one dictionary in particular:

His education progressed; but his greatest finds were in the inexhaustible structure of the huge illustrated dictionary, for he learned more through the medium of pictures than text, even after he grasped the significance of the bugs [what Tarzan initially calls letters]. When he discovered the arrangement of words in alphabetical order, he delighted in searching for and finding the combinations with which he was familiar [combinations of “bugs,” that is], and the words which followed them, which were their definitions, led him still further into the mazes of erudition.

Madeline may not have read this passage or noted anything about the Whitman edition of Tarzan of the Apes besides the glossary, but it adds lexicographical relevance to the artifact she collected.

We will have misgivings about the much of the contents of Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, but the structure of the Whitman edition demonstrates an interesting continuity in the history of dictionaries, which contributes to Western book history. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many specialist books — those about heraldry or the arts of war, for instance — included glossaries of terms unfamiliar to the average reader. The first English examples of cant lexicography appear as glossaries to books about rogues and beggars, such as the one in Richard Head’s The Canting Academy (1673), the subject of a previous post. With the rise of free-standing dictionaries, the need for such glossaries abates, but over the centuries books occasionally included them anyway, and the Whitman edition of Tarzan of the Apes is a (relatively) recent extension of that bibliographic tradition. Any serious collector of dictionaries and glossaries would trace the history of end-of-book glossaries from their distant beginning to the here and now.

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