Koko: The Amazing Talking, Kitten-Loving, Nipple-Obsessed Gorilla

alex atkins bookshelf wordsKoko, the western lowland gorilla that could sign in Gorilla Sign Language (a modified form of the American Sign Language), passed away in Woodside, California on June 19, 2018. She was born in the San Francisco Zoo on July 4, 1971 (thus Koko is short for Hanabi-Ko, Japanese for “fireworks child”) and died just weeks before her 47th birthday. In 1972, Patterson, who was a doctoral student at Stanford (her dissertation focused on the linguistic capabilities of gorillas) began teaching Koko American Sign Language. She began with three basic signs — “food,” “drink,” and “more” — through modeling and molding. Patterson would also speak the words as she signed them. Within a few weeks, Koko had learned how to sign several basic words. Like a human child, Koko’s vocabulary increased dramatically between the second and fourth years, acquiring more than 300 words. Koko could express emotions such as “sad,” “love,” “good,” and “sorry.” Koko could also invent new signs, for example: “finger+bracelet” (ring); “stuck+metal” (magnet); “scratch+comb” (brush). By the time she reached her 40s, Koko could sign more than 1,100 words (similar to the vocabulary of a human toddler) and understand more than 2,000 words of spoken English. Imagine that — Koko: the King Kong of the English language.

Growing up, Koko’s favorite story was “The Three Little Kittens” which appears in the Mother Goose collection and is often attributed to American poet Eliza Lee Cabot Follen (1787-1860). Koko’s strong maternal instincts were exhibited when she cared for and raised her own pet kitten whom she named “All-Ball” because it had no tail. All-Ball is featured in the best-selling children’s book Koko’s Kitten, which recounts the gentle gorilla’s many years with her tiny furry companion. And, of course, Koko and All-Ball are featured in many videos and documentaries that show how gentle and playful this 280-pound gorilla could be. Tragically, All-Ball escaped Koko’s enclosure and was hit by a car and died. Koko mourned the loss of his beloved pet. Since then, Koko has cared for several pet cats, most recently Ms. Gray and Ms. Black. 

Koko was an ambassador for her endangered species as well as a celebrity. And like any celebrity, there were some aspects of her life that required a bit of public relations spin. It seems that Koko was especially fascinated by the word “nipple.” Or more precisely, the game of “I’ll show you my nipples, if you show me yours” which led to a lawsuit for sexual harassment and wrongful termination (can you say “nipplegate”? Speaking of nipplegate, do you recall when Justin Timberlake infamously exposed Janet Jackson’s pierced nipple during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show? Koko would have been thrilled with the so-called “wardrobe malfunction.”) when caretakers were fired when they refused to expose their breasts, specifically their nipples, to Koko. (For the record, the Gorilla Foundation denied the claims, but settled out of court with the former employees.) In a — shall we dare say it — titillating article titled “The Real Meaning of Koko’s Purported Nipple Fetish,” author Charles Seife recounts some of the allegations in the lawsuit, including these eyebrow-raising exchanges: “Oh, yes, Koko, [Employee A] has nipples. [Employee A] can show you her nipples.” and “Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so [Employee B] can show you her nipples.” Clearly, Koko was oblivious to the MeToo movement.

If you are a word lover, this story invites the question: so, what do you call someone who is obsessed with nipples? Interestingly, when you google that question, do you know what comes up? Stories about Koko the amazing talking gorilla and her unique, um… peccadillo. But, you can always count on Urban Dictionary to provide some lexicographic contenders. Urban Dictionary offers “nipple junkie: a person who isn’t just fascinated by nipples but is addicted to them.” That certainly hits the mark. Now, if you read several articles in that same google search you will find that writers refer to Koko’s “nipple fetish.” One can conclude that “nipple fetish” is the more accepted, standardized term for obsession for nipples. So there you have it: Koko the unwitting poster girl for nipple fetish. Who knew?

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Read related posts: What is the Most Beautiful Sounding Word in English?
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For further reading: http://www.koko.org

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