(n.) an arboreal primate native to Madagascar
The fact that a group of lemurs is called a conspiracy ended up the post popular fact on HH this week. Though as Hal Duncan astutely pointed out on Twitter, going by the photograph that accompanied our tweet perhaps a more appropriate term might be a Voltron of lemurs:
We’ve addressed the origins of fairly flippant group terms like these on HH before, so there’s no need to go into that again now (except to say that calling a group of lemurs a conspiracy is probably towards the more flippant end of an already fairly flippant scale—though nevertheless has the backing of the Zoological Society of London).
As for the origins of the word lemur itself, however, that’s something altogether different.
Despite being inordinately cute, lemurs take their name from one of Ancient Rome’s creepiest bits of folklore: stalking skeletal wraiths known as lemures.
The lemures (that’s “lem-yuh-reez”, rhyming with please not cures) were said to be the ghosts of all those who had died leaving unfinished business behind them, or else who had not been afforded proper burial rites. Ultimately, they were the ghosts of everyone from sailors lost at sea and those who had died in accidents and whose bodies could not be recovered, to the ghosts of murder victims, executed criminals, victims of suicides, and all other unquiet souls.
These ghosts would, it was believed, rise at night and walk the streets of Rome, haunting their former homes and neighbourhoods in a vain attempt to put right the wrongs that they had left behind.
From there, skip forward a few millennia: in 1754, the great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus entered a record of a creature he called the Lemur tardigradus (literally the “slow-moving lemur”) into the exhibition catalogue of the Museum of King Adolf Frederick of Sweden. Four years later, he compounded his use of the term by adding it into the 10th edition of his landmark guide to animal classification, the Systema Naturae, alongside two more species he called the Lemur catta (“cat lemur”) and Lemur volans (“flying lemur”).
Explaining his choice of names for these creatures, Linnaeus explained:
I call them lemurs, because they go around mainly by night, in a certain way similar to humans, and roam with a slow pace.
Despite being inordinately cute, Linnaeus clearly saw something otherworldly in the lemurs’ nocturnal habits and surprisingly humanlike faces and gaits. How conspiratorial he thought they were, we’ll never know.