Primate

We are family…

Dear Word Detective:   I could have sworn you’d answered this question already but it isn’t in the archives.  How did the main prelate of England, the “primate,” come to share a name with a monkey?  The Oxford English Dictionary says the zoological usage came later, but every time I read a book set in the middle ages and they refer to “the primate,” I can’t help picturing a monkey in a black robe and red sash.  Please help. — Jackie.

Um, no, I’m pretty sure I’d remember writing a column connecting the Archbishop of Canterbury to a monkey.  Then again, perhaps I wrote it just before I was struck by lightning a couple of years ago.  That’s not a joke, by the way.  It was actually a very close encounter with ball lightning, close enough to numb one side of my body for a few days.  But I’m fine now, unless you count the twitching.

In any case, that’s a darn good question.  A “primate” is indeed a member of the zoological order “Primates,” which includes humans, apes, monkeys, and “prosimians” (which are not, sadly, professional simians, but critters like lemurs).

But “Primate” is also a title, in the Christian church, conferred on the chief bishop or archbishop of a given country, province or other subdivision. So the above-mentioned Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, is considered “Primate of All England” (but King Kong is not, in the ecclesiastical sense, Primate of New York).

While there were definitely monkeys before there were bishops, the church use of “primate” for its officials preceded the zoological use by about five centuries, and has a slightly different source than the monkey “primate.”  The Latin “primus” was an adjective meaning “first” (also the source of “prime” and “primary”), from which developed the Latin adjective “primas,” meaning “chief or principal.”  This “chief” sense gave us “primate” meaning “head bishop” in the 13th century.

The monkey family name “primates” came into use in the 18th century and is derived from the plural of “primas,” which was “primates.”  The order Primates made its debut in 1735 in the “Systema Naturae” (System of Nature) of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.  In his hierarchical system, apes and their relatives were classed with humans in Primates, the “highest” order, which caused quite a stir in certain quarters.  (Oddly enough, Linnaeus also classified bats as primates and whales as fish in early editions of his work.)  The use of “Primates” as the name of this order is Scientific Latin, unconnected to “primate” in the church sense, and, strictly speaking, the use of the singular “primate” to mean just one monkey is not really scientifically kosher.

Leave a comment