Join Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions! Subscribe Today!

A Tricky Matter of Cryptozoology and Proper Terminology

There is a trend that I have noticed in cryptozoology, and that is that many people just don’t know how to use or know what to do with the terminology and conventions associated with it. There are a few things I’ve noticed with writings of a cryptozoological nature, and felt they were things that needed to be addressed, in an attempt to further discourse on a singular, agreed upon set of conventions for talking about the field. Please understand that I truly feel this is not just nitpicking or grammar snobbery, but a very real issue facing the field of cryptozoology as it moves forward to try and gain credence and respect. In order to at least appear more professional and avoid confusion cryptozoology has to do what every branch of science and even most types of pseudoscience have done, and find a structure of terminology and usage that is agreed upon and accepted as correct within the field. If cryptozoology wants itself to be taken more seriously, then I think this is certainly a step that can be taken in the right direction. It may not make the field more accepted by the mainstream but it surely wouldn’t hurt. Let’s take a look at some of the issues.

Usage of “cryptozology” and “cryptid.”

The first thing to be understood is just what constitutes a “cryptid” and just what “cryptozoology” entails. The term “cryptozoology” itself was first coined in French-Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans and his colleague, Scottish zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson, who both wrote numerous books on the subject, such as Heuvelmans’ groundbreaking work On the Track of Unknown Animals in 1955. Although the two were pioneers in the field, Heuvelmans himself would credit the term “cryptozoology” to Sanderson, who put together the Greek word kryptos, meaning “hidden,” with zoology, which literally became the “study of hidden animals.” As for the term “cryptid,” this word can most clearly be traced back to a September 1983 article in the International Society of Cryptozoology Newsletter, in which cryptozoologist J. E. Wall proposed calling these hidden creatures “cryptids.” His rationale was explained for an overall term for such creatures being, “My suggestion is ‘cryptid’, meaning a living thing having the quality of being hidden or unknown.”

Bernard Heuvelmans

But what exactly is a “cryptid” anyway? The term has not really been comprehensively defined, and remains rather nebulous, but in general it entails any living creature whose existence into the present day is unsubstantiated, lacks concrete physical evidence, and the reality of which is widely debated and uncertain. This is a rather broad definition to be sure, and can include animals which have up to now considered to be extinct but which may remain somewhere, new species which remain elusive, animals outside of the normal parameters of what we know, beasts which are spoken of in myth, legend, and folklore which may be based on some real unknown animal, animals which do not appear to be similar to any known species, those which have been seen far outside of their known range or habitat, and creatures appearing with unexpected size, coloration or shape beyond the norm. Generally speaking, it is important that these mysterious creatures be “ethnoknown,” an important term to remember, that is, the creature is known by the local population of the area in some form or other, yet has not been conclusively proven to exist in any meaningful way.

For instance, Native Americans and other cultures have various legends of hairy wildmen, so Bigfoot is an ethnoknown entity. This is very important as it is considered to be a key feature for an alleged unidentified animal to be considered worth pursuing in cryptozoology, in other words a true “cryptid.” If it is only known from a handful of wild reports but not represented in any of the lore of the area’s people, then it is likely not a cryptid, but something else entirely. Only very rarely is a new species identified by science which was not ethnoknown, one example being the Sumatran striped rabbit (Nesolagus netscheri), of the Barisan Mountains in western Sumatra, Indonesia. This animal is only known from photographs, sightings, and field observations, and is so rare and elusive that the natives of the area had no idea they even existed, having no name for the rabbit. In this sense it was a cryptid that was not ethnoknown, but this is by far the exception rather than the rule. A good general definition of where to apply the term “cryptid” was given in Chad Arment’s book Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation, in which he writes:

To determine whether the term cryptid applies to a particular creature, we see two sets of criteria that must be met: is there knowledge (however imperfect) of the animal’s possible existence; is there not yet enough evidence to prove that existence? Bigfoot is a cryptid because it meets both criteria. A barn owl meets the first criteria, but not the second.

A cryptid can be a plausible proposition, such as the survival of the Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, or it can be a creature more seemingly outlandish, such as a giant monster lurking in Loch Ness, bipedal hairy apes roaming North America, or even commonly perceived completely mythological creatures or denizens of folklore such as unicorns or dragons. Indeed cryptozoologists will often bump against folklorists and paranormal investigators, but this is just to gather data on to what extent the creature in question is ethnknown, how it is viewed by the culture, or possible ideas of what it might be. Cryptozoology is not about proving the paranormal or the supernatural and I don’t even think it is strictly “monster hunting.” I don’t think any cryptozoologists really think that we are going to find an actual dragon just as described in fairy tales and myth or an actual unicorn as commonly depicted as a strapping stallion with a single horn. At the end of the day, cryptozoologists are looking for a potentially real, biological entity behind all of the stories, myths, folklore, and sightings accounts. Indeed, a good many known animals were portrayed in a mythical or magical way before their discovery and even after.

Cryptozoology places great importance on the fact that a creature of some form is known to the local population and that its presence is significant, distinctive, and able to be clearly seen as something different by the local populace, even by someone who is not specially trained to differentiate such things. There is more to all of this but the main gist is that a cryptid is a strange, hidden animal sighted and known of by locals which has yet to be uncovered by mainstream science, and it is supposed that the creature in question will eventually be recognized by science and classifiable. In the end we are looking for some real creature at the heart of it, and the “zoology” part of “cryptozoology” supposes that this is something breathing and of flesh and blood. Some of these may have been embellished by lore and stories, and indeed many known animals are seen in their own cultures as rather mystical and imbued with various strange powers, but at the end of the day cryptozoologists are generally looking for something concrete behind it all.

In this respect, there seem to be certain entities and monsters commonly classified as “cryptids” yet which are really nothing of the sort. For instance, anything which pops up on the radar for which there is no known precedent or is only seen once or twice is not really truly a cryptid because it is not enthoknown and not solidly supported by enough consistent accounts. It may generate some interest and curiosity, but it is really an anomaly more than anything else. Creatures that are obviously set within the realm of the paranormal are not really true cryptids either. Ghosts, demons, angles, aliens, zombies, werewolves, vampires, ghostly hounds or countless truly bizarre otherworldly beings for which there is no firm historical precedent at all and that have no discernible link to anything within the world of biology or zoology as we know it are not really considered to be cryptids, and pursuing them as such tends to detract from the goal of cryptozoology to be seen and respected as a branch of zoology.

If someone is to take the stance that something like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster are something other than a flesh and blood creature, fine. That may be so, but at that point they are no longer cryptids. They are something else. If the proposed entity is something obviously far out of the realm of possibility for a real animal in any meaningful way, then it is not a cryptid. It is something else. To recap, to be a cryptid in the strictest sense of the word the creature must meet certain criteria in that they are ethnoknown, they are well represented by sightings and folklore, and that they are feasibly a real animal. While some of these other things I mention, these “something else’s” (“cryptoids?” Did I just make a new word? If that one’s not taken I call dibs) may or may not exist, they are not technically a part of cryptozoology. Supernatural, paranormal, Fortean, whatever you want to call these other phenomena, they are something else, and generally are not considered to technically fall under the umbrella of the term “cryptozoology” or “cryptid.” I think cryptozoology should frown upon the incorrect usage of the word “cryptid,” which is actually rather rampant. I think it should not be a catch-all term for just any mysterious, bizarre, paranormal, or otherworldly entity or beast.

Bigfeet? : The Plural form of various cryptids

This is an area which has seen quite a lot of debate and misunderstanding over the years, and it seems like something that cryptozoologists should have come to some agreement on long ago. I mean, what IS the plural of “Bigfoot?” It is tricker than you might imagine. Some people say “Bigfeet,” which tends to really grate on my nerves. Others say “Bigfoots,” which is somewhat better but still mostly considered to be wrong. The short answer is that the plural of Bigfoot is most widely considered to be “Bigfoot.”

But how is that, you may ask? After all, even the esteemed Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists the plural of “Bigfoot” as “Bigfeet” or “Bigfoots,” and that may seem to be the most intuitive answer for a lot of people, but no. World renowned cryptozoologist Loren Coleman explained it all quite nicely in an article called Bigfoot, Not Bigfeet! Nor bigfoots! Nor sasquatches!, with a quite convincing argument for why the plural should not be “Bigfeet,” as intuitive as that may seem to many English speakers, or even the slightly less jarring “Bigfoots.” In short, “Bigfoot” as the plural form of “Bigfoot” is following conventions already put into place with a variety of known animals, although it can be tricky at times. Coleman gives a list of numerous animal names that follow this plural form, such as:

antelope – antelope
buffalo – buffalo
bison – bison
mink – mink
otter – otter
bass – bass
deer – deer
moose – moose
swine – swine
pike – pike
trout – trout
goldfish – goldfish
species – species
sheep – sheep

In this case, it seems clear that the preferred way to pluralize the word “Bigfoot” is as “Bigfoot,” and Coleman argues that other cryptids follow a similar irregular plural form, such as Sasquatch and of course Nessie. Some cryptids can follow normal plural rules, or have a plural form that is acceptable with or without the “s,” and some examples given include creatures, such as “Yeti” having the plural of either “Yetis” or “Yeti,” and “Abominable Snowman” having the plural forms of “Abominable Snowmen” or “Abominable Snowpeople.” Other cryptids seem to have a less certain plural form, such as the Yeren, which is equally pluralized with or without the “s,” but which Coleman proposes is mostly accepted within serious cryptozoology as not having the “s.” Coleman says of the common mistakes with the pluralization of “Bigfoot” and “Sasquatch” thus:

You can usually immediately tell the articles and books that are written by those people who are unfamiliar with the field of cryptozoology, Bigfoot studies, hominology, and Sasquatch pursuit by their use of such incorrect and uncomfortable plural forms such as “Bigfoots,” “Bigfeet,” “Bigfeets,” “Sasquatches,” and “Big Feet.” All are incorrect, based on common grammatical usage and practice in our field, which follows rules as with the above irregular plural forms, often seen applied to animals. Indeed, I have always felt that if I hear or read of someone saying “Bigfeet,” or “sasquatches,” I figured they probably didn’t know what they were talking about in terms of Bigfoot, Sasquatch and other matters of cryptozoology.

This may seem like it is perhaps a bit harsh, as there are actually several experienced cryptozoologists and many commenters on forums out there still calling them “Bigfoots” or “Bigfeet,” and there are numerous cryptozoological publications, especially older ones, that do use these forms. However, this seems to be a relic of another time that is being mostly phased out, although there are certainly those who may disagree and it seems not totally settled once and for all even now. While there is perhaps still room for debate as to what the plural form of “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch” should be, and it has indeed been debated and discussed quite a bit, I would say the words of one of the most eminent and respected cryptozoologists in the field should be taken fairly seriously.

Regardless of what one insists on calling them, this is not merely a small, nit-picky thing, and such pluralization issues underline one glaring problem in cryptozoology that I mentioned earlier; that not everyone can agree on the proper terminology within the field. It seems to me that if cryptozoology is to be taken more seriously as a legitimate pursuit, something it has always struggled with, then it is imperative to do what other fields in mainstream science do and come up with a common, agreed-upon universal terminology on which to operate, including proper plurals. This seems like only common sense, but it is an area I feel cryptozoology has struggled with in some ways. So whether you like “Bigfoot,” “Bigfoots,” “Bigfeet,” “Bigfeets,” “Bigfootses,”whatever, can we at least pick one and all agree on it?

Cryptozoology and Capitalization

Another point that seems worth mentioning, and which has also been brought up by Coleman and other cryptozoologists on numerous occasions and which is also often discussed, is the conventions of capitalization with regards to the names of various cryptids. Reading about cryptozoology on the Internet and in a lot of articles and publications it seems that this too is something we have yet to fully agree on. However, the most accepted way of writing of cryptids among cryptozoologists is to capitalize the names of undiscovered, unverified creatures, and use lower-case letters once the animal has been classified by science as indeed real. This method of capitalization is based on a “manual of style” used by The International Society of Cryptozoology, from where it launched into common usage. Loren Coleman has also written of this at length, and sums things up nicely by saying:

The style of this work and the use of capitalization for the undiscovered cryptids under discussion (e.g., Bigfoot, Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, Ogopogo, Nahuelito, Bunyip), follows the “manual of style” that was adopted by the International Society of Cryptozoology’s editor, Richard Greenwell, and the ISC scientific peer-reviewed journal, Cryptozoology. Greenwell details the proper capitalization of the cryptozoological names, before and after discovery, in a footnote in Cryptozoology, Vol. 5 (1986), page 101. His formalization of this matter is furthermore based on what occurs in systematic zoology, firm ground indeed.

Greenwell gives plenty of examples to support this form of capitalization, such as “Okapi” becoming “okapi” after formal discovery, and this all basically means that, for instance, Bigfoot should be capitalized until it is confirmed by formal zoology, after which it would become “bigfoot,” “Yeti” would become “yeti” after formal discovery, and so on. While this has mostly been the way of doing things within cryptozoology and is generally accepted, there are still numerous articles and news stories that insist on not capitalizing cryptid names and some people even within the field occasionally argue against this capitalization rule or break it. I too use the capitalized version of cryptids, and to me it just looks strange, wrong, and I dare to say silly even, when people write “bigfoot.”

Chupa-huh?: Proper Names, Evolving Language, and Cryptozoology

Of all of the mysterious creatures and cryptids out there, other than Bigfoot and Nessie, perhaps few have been written about quite as much a certain bloodsucking fiend claimed to prowl the night in search of livestock to drain of blood, and most commonly reported from Spanish speaking countries, although not always. I am of course speaking of the ubiquitous Chupacabras. Or is that Chubacabra? Huh? What? Let me explain. Technically speaking, Chupacabras with the “s” is correct as far as the Spanish origins of the word go. The term comes from a mingling of the Spanish words “chupar,” or “to suck,” and “cabra,” meaning goat, literally “goat-sucker.” However, the creature preys on many goats, not just one so technically, it should be “Chupacabras.”

The confusion seems to derive from a misconception that the “s” is a pluralization of the actual creature, whereas in fact it is the pluralization of the creature’s prey. This misunderstanding and misanalysis of the plural form has led many English cryptozoology publications to drop the “s” to form the word “Chupacabra.” Indeed, a great number of articles, books, and even movie titles insist on using the word “Chupacabra,” which is strictly speaking, incorrect. At least considering the word’s origin from Spanish. Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has also given his opinion on this, say in the article “Chupawhat? “:

I am unhappy with this evolution of a good and decent word, and its current misuse. My own use of “Chupacabras” was warped into “Chupacabra”! I would never say “Chupacabra.” This business about the word “Chupacabras” evolving into the incorrectly spelled “Chupacabra” seems to be pure laziness on the part of the media. I noticed after the “Adventures Beyond” people incorrectly entitled their movie “Chupacabra,” then things began to change for the worse. I interviewed my Hispanic cryptozoologist friend Scott Corrales, and here’s what he says about this whole issue:

The “chupacabra” usage really gets my goat — pun much intended! To say chupacabra is to imply that the entity is “the sucker of a single goat”. Chupacabras is “the sucker of goats”, which was meant by the original nomenclature. Perhaps English speakers feel that a false plural is being formed and they resort to “s” removal. Fortunately the singular/plural issue is resolved–in Spanish–by a “definite article” placed in front of the noun (el, la, los, las, lo): One single chupacabras: “El Chupacabras” A troupe of the things: “Los Chupacabras” If female: “La Chupacabras” A cluster of females: “Las Chupacabras” So the word “Chupacabras” remains intact — no need to amputate the final “s” !”

This appears on its surface to be the final word on the subject and a reasonable argument, and it is. However, there are still many experienced cryptozoologists and veteran writers on the subject who still refer to the creature as the “Chupacabra.” So which is correct? In a sense, I would propose that both are, in their own way. While “Chupacabras” is the purely technically correct of the two terms, it must be remembered that language is a malleable, ever evolving thing, and words tend to get changed or morphed over time, especially those making the jump between two different languages.

An example just off the top of my head is the word “robot.” This term comes from the Czech word robota, which is close, but in the jump to English as a borrowed word that last “a” was dropped. Does anyone in English call it a “robota?” Of course not, and now the proper, universally accepted term in English is “robot,” even though technically speaking it should be “robota” considering the word’s Czech origins. So while “robot” in its purest sense is strictly speaking, wrong, it has become the term that English speakers commonly use and therefore in our language is considered quite correct. This is just one example but there are many, many other such words out there; wrong in relation to their own language’s origin, even butchered beyond the point of recognition by their mother tongue in the process, but now considered correct through mainstream usage by a large number of people after being adopted by a different language.

I think the same sort of thing has happened with the word “Chupacabras.” Technically in Spanish it is correct with the “s,” but this is a word that has carried over into English and been subjected to a slight metamorphosis and evolution in the process. So does that make “Chubacabra” really wrong as an English borrowed word? As long as the word has become accepted and used as “Chupacabra” by a large enough number of people, it seems like it cannot really be considered to still be an incorrect term. It only takes enough people using it and considering it common usage for a word to be considered correct in a given language. In the end which is really correct, “Chupacabras” or “Chupacabra?” I would argue that in a way they both are. Even so, I personally prefer the term “Chupacabras.” With a capitalized “C,” of course.