Tuesday, April 22, 2008

man vs. ‘beest

In Innocent Killers, a book Jane Goodall wrote with her then-husband, the nature photographer Hugo van Lawick, Jane engages in a little activism via grammar:

“It may seem strange, to some, that I write wildebeests, using the plural. Most people will talk about a herd of wildebeest, or zebra, a pride of lion, and so forth. But to us [meaning herself and Hugo], this use of the singular suggests that the individuality of each animal in the group is being ignored. It implies, to us, that every lion is just a lion. After all, who would dream of talking about a boatload of Italian, a classroom of German, or even a gathering of man?”

My brow crinkled up. I flipped back three pages. There I found a paragraph in which Jane discusses possible lifeways of early humans:

“Let us consider early man in the role of a scavenger. He may have been a reasonably fast runner, although, as he had not long adopted an upright posture, we cannot be sure. Undoubtedly he … his ears were much sharper than those of man today, at least of ‘civilized’ man … Early man … If he … he might have been able to … his weapons …”

Considering that I’ve never heard anyone say “pride of lion” Jane’s grammatical line in the sand must’ve stopped that particular travesty from crossing to my American ears. I haven’t read her most recent book, Reason for Hope -- do you know if she’s taken her own advice when referring to her home species?

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