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Cryptid

Posted by: Loren Coleman on December 17th, 2005

What is a “cryptid”?

What meanings are in circulation?

Here’s the definition, as I noted in my 1999 book, co-authored with Jerome Clark, Cryptozoology A to Z. I share it with those on Cryptomundo that are not aware of the full meaning. And throw it out for discussion and debate by those that feel it has expanded or shrunk.

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“Cryptid” is a relatively new word used among professionals and laypeople to denote an animal of interest to cryptozoology. John E. Wall of Manitoba coined it in a letter published in the summer 1983 issue of the ISC Newsletter (vol. 2, no. 2, p. 10), published by the International Society of Cryptozoology. Recently “cryptid” was recognized by the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster as a word of legitimate coinage, though it has yet to appear in their dictionary [as of 1999].

[By the way, whatever happened to John E. Wall? Where is he today?]

Cryptids are either unknown species of animals or animals which, though thought to be extinct, may have survived into modern times and await rediscovery by scientists. “Cryptid” is derived from “crypt,” from the Greek kryptos (hidden); “id,” from the Latin ides, a patronymic suffix; and the Greek “ides,” which means “in sense.” When the suffix id is used it typically applies to an implied lineage or similar usages, as in “perseid” (meteors appearing to originate from Perseus, typically around August 11).

Bernard Heuvelmans’s definition of cryptozoology itself was exact: “The scientific study of hidden animals, i.e., of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstantial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some!”

Over the last ten years some have suggested that the science of cryptozoology should be expanded to include many animals as “cryptids,” specifically including the study of out-of-place animals, feral animals, and even animal ghosts and apparitions. In [the journal] Cryptozoology, Heuvelmans rejects such notions with typical thoroughness, and not a little wry humor:

Admittedly, a definition need not conform necessarily to the exact etymology of a word. But it is always preferable when it really does so which I carefully endeavored to achieve when I coined the term “cryptozoology.” All the same being a very tolerant person, even in the strict realm of science, I have never prevented anybody from creating new disciplines of zoology quite distinct from cryptozoology. How could I, in any case?

So, let people who are interested in founding a science of “unexpected animals,” feel free to do so, and if they have a smattering of Greek and are not repelled by jaw breakers they may call it”aprosbletozoology” or “apronoeozoology” or even “anelistozoology.” Let those who would rather be searching for “bizarre animals” create a “paradoozoology,” and those who prefer to go a hunting for “monstrous animals,” or just plain “monsters,” build up a “teratozoology” or more simply a “pelorology.”

But for heavens sake, let cryptozoology be what it is, and what I meant it to be when I gave it its name over thirty years ago!

Unfortunately, many of the creatures of most interest to cryptozoologists do not, in themselves, fall under the blanket heading of cryptozoology. Thus, many who are interested in such phenomena as the so-called Beasts of Bodmin Moor (not unknown species but a known species albeit in an alien environment) and the Devonshire/Cornwall “devil dogs” (not “animals” or even “animate” in the accepted sense of the word, and thus only of marginal interest to scientific cryptozoologists) think of these creatures as cryptids.

More broadly, then, we do not know whether a cryptid is an unknown species of animal, or a supposedly extinct animal, or a misidentification, or anything more than myth until evidence is gathered and accepted one way or another. Until that proof is found, the supposed animal carries the label “cryptid,” regardless of the potential outcome and regardless of various debates concerning its true identity. When it is precisely identified, it is no longer a cryptid, because it is no longer hidden.

While Heuvelmans created cryptozoology [independently, and later than the coining of the word by Ivan T. Sanderson] as a goal-oriented discipline (endeavoring to prove the existence of hidden animals), the fact that some of these cryptids will turn out not to be new species does not invalidate the process by which that conclusion is reached and does not retroactively discard their prior status as cryptids. For example, the large unknown “monster” in a local lake is a cryptid until it is caught and shown to be a known species such as an alligator. It is no longer hidden and no longer carries the label “cryptid,” but that doesn’t mean it never was a cryptid.

It is often impossible to tell which category an unknown animal actually inhabits until you catch it. Until then, it is a cryptid.

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© 1999 Loren Coleman/Jerome Clark. Not to be used without prior permission, and then only with proper citation.

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The definition is from Cryptozoology A to Z (NY: Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1999) pp. 75-77.

Loren Coleman – has written 5491 posts on this site.
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


3 Responses to “Cryptid”

  1. tpeter responds:

    Dear Loren,

    Bernard Heuvelmans defined cryptozoology as “The scientific study of hidden animals, i.e., of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstantial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some!” Now, I wonder, just how crucially important for our definition is Heuvelmans’ reference to “only testimonial or circumstantial evidence”

    That is, are cryptids only such unknown or unidentified animals of which there are local traditions and legends, or which have been occasionally reported by hunters, campers, hikers, picknickers, sailors, etc.? Or, do they also include totally unsuspected species with no previous attached traditions that suddenly turn up, like the unknown carnivore recently photographed by an automatic camera in Borneo. I do not recall ever hearing of any local native Borneo tradition about such a carnivore. Likewise, the coelacanth found in the Indian Ocean near Africa in the 1930′s was not a subject of controversial native legends argued back and forth for years between believers and skeptics–though it DID turn out to be a creature believed long-extinct by scientists.

    More specifically, should or should not cryptids be confined to what Willy Ley called “romantic zoology”? In other words, is a cryptid only a mysterious, controversial creature that captures the public imagination and the popular media, like Bigfoot, Yeti, Almas, Orang Pendek,”Nessie,” “Ogopogo,” “Champ,” “sea sepents,” Corwall’s “Owl-Man,” or the 1960′s West Virginia “Mothman”? Or do cryptids also include creatures that stir little popular or media
    interest, like wild oxen known to Southeast Asian locals but unknown to official Western science until quite recently, or spider monkey species unknown to “norteamericano” zoology but long familiar to Amazon rain forest dwellers? As I once pointed out in an ANOMALIST article on “Too Many Anomalies, Too Little Time,” there is little popular or media interest, compared to Bigfoot or Nessie, in announcements of a new phylum of mud-borrowing marine worms or a new species of Amazon rain-forest tree-frogs. Few if any people would think of such worms or tree-frogs as “cryptids.” But, just exactly where would you draw the line?

    Also, just what WOULD you call entities like “Mothman” or the Devonshire and Cornwall “devil dogs”? As you yourself just said of the Devonshire/Cornwall “devil dogs,” they are not “animals” or even “animate” in the accepted sense of the word, and thus only of marginal interest to scientific cryptozoologists. Thus, you do not think of these creatures as cryptids. However, what WOULD be a good term for them?

    Just wondering,
    T. Peter

  2. 2400bc responds:

    I’ve always felt a cryptid was simply a living creature (something with DNA) which is speculated to exist. I do tend to associate the word “cryptid” with the more sensational possibilites such as Bigfoot, Nessie, and living dinosaurs, but “sensational” is subjective. I would say a living apatosaurus in the congo is sensational, but the natives who have actually seen it would simply call it rare.

    A new phylum of mud-borrowing marine worm would be sensational to a biologist, but not to me. I would still agree that it used to be a cryptid, but since no one was “looking forward” to its discovery and didn’t care when it was discovered I would just give it the boring name it deserves – a new phylum of mud-borrowing marine worm – and not proclaim it as an ex-cryptid.

    Mothman being a cryptid would depend on whether or not the eyewitness felt it was a living organism, an apparition, or halucination.

    I suppose I reserve the term “cryptid” to creatures seeable with the naked eye and which are noteworthy.

  3. Loren Coleman responds:

    Heuvelmans usually discussed cryptids as animals that were large enough to have an impact on humans, thus they were animals the size of dogs and cats, and bigger.

    Ethnoknown is an important factor, and many of these examples (e.g. the coelacanth) were known by the locals. Debate between supporters and skeptics is not significant in determining if a cryptid is ethnoknown.



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