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Revisiting “Cryptid”

Posted by: Loren Coleman on December 1st, 2009

One way to keep cryptozoology a living science is to revisit the terms and jargon used within the field. In line with that view, it is good to discuss the meaning and uses of the word “cryptid,” frequently. The floor is open to comments, feelings, thoughts, and reassessments about its usage.

For the record…

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 who are unaware of the full meaning. And I 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.

About Loren Coleman
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.


9 Responses to “Revisiting “Cryptid””

  1. Fhqwhgads responds:

    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.

    This definition has a serious drawback, insofar as it combines the unknown status of the cryptid with too much information about what the cryptid is — i.e., an animal. So are lake monsters cryptids? Almost everything about them — potentially EVERYTHING — comes down to misidentification, folklore, and fraud; who can be sure there is an animal at the heart of all the stories, let alone an “unknown species of animal or animal which, though thought to be extinct, may have survived into modern times and await rediscovery by scientists”? But if the body of a plesiosaur or a long-necked seal washes ashore at Loch Ness today, suddenly there is a type specimen and the animal is no longer unknown! So a lake monster would appear to be not necessarily a cryptid, but only a potential cryptid.

    Also, odd creatures previously unobserved and unexpected show up all the time in “conventional” zoology, particularly in the deep oceans. With no folklore or casual sightings to behind them, can these “unknown species of animals”, which were not the subject of study of any cryptozoologists, really be said to be cryptids?

  2. Loren Coleman responds:

    Fhq writes:

    Also, odd creatures previously unobserved and unexpected show up all the time in “conventional” zoology, particularly in the deep oceans. With no folklore or casual sightings to behind them, can these “unknown species of animals”, which were not the subject of study of any cryptozoologists, really be said to be cryptids?

    No such claim is made that all the new species discovered each year are former cryptids. But lessons are to be learned from such discoveries, and sometimes backtracking reveals the locals often knew about them, despite these sightings and knowledge being overlooked or unrecorded in an academic literature.

    Also, I dispute the implied definition that “conventional zoology” does not involve, in some cases, the conventional employment of the cryptozoological method, namely an awareness of the ethnoknown reports of unusual wildlife that might indicate a new species or a formerly extinct species rediscovered.

  3. Fhqwhgads responds:

    Deep sea fish are not ethnoknown for two reasons: (1) they live too deep for fishermen to have access to them, and (2) to a fisherman they would just be an ugly fish that is probably not good to eat.

    By conventional zoology, I mean the kind of zoology that ends up published in peer-reviewed biology journals. Yes, of course part of the scientific method involves the formulation of an hypothesis, and the hypothesis can come from anywhere.

    I would suggest modifying the definition of cryptid to something like the following:

    Cryptids are hypothetical but plausible animals of either unknown species or species which, though thought to be extinct, may have survived into modern times and await rediscovery by scientists. By “plausible” it is meant that the hypothetical animal does not violate the laws of physics (like a ghost) or the basic principles of biology (like a horse/bird hybrid), and that the existence of the animal is supported by either living witnesses or cultural records.

  4. Loren Coleman responds:

    Coelacanths are deep ocean trench inhabitants ethnoknown (and when infrequently taken, eaten, with mixed reviews) by the locals (from their varied African and Indonesian habitants) before they were “discovered” by “Westerners.”

  5. Ferret responds:

    In my mind, a cryptid is an anomalous animal known in rumor and legend, but not formally recognized by the zoologists. In essence, a cryptid is a creature that presents some “problem” according to “confirmed knowledge”, be it distribution (out of place), time period of sighting (implying sightings after extinction), odd characteristic (such as black panthers, blue tigers, or giant otters), or simply something that fails to match the description of any known species (new species). Therefore anything seeming to be animal that falls into any of these categories may be called a cryptid until it is no longer hidden or secret to science, by proving the source of the cryptid be it unknown ape or something more mundane (yes even an otter!).

  6. cryptidsrus responds:

    Great discussion here, Loren. I agree with your point of view. :)

  7. springheeledjack responds:

    I still like Heuvelmanns definition. It is basically the study of animals not at present known in zoological terms–a specimen that is available for study–but rather animals that are known through testimony and circumstantial evidence…including eye witness, photos, film, etc.

    I, personally, do not include things such as phantom animals (ghosts, apparitions, etc.) because for me that falls under the umbrella of the “paranormal.” I see cryptozoology as a study of real physical animals…unless you want to spiral out on a philosophical conversation about “physical” and then that’s a whole other post…

    As for Fhq–it all comes down to assumptions…if you assume all lake monsters are misidentifications, etc. then you probably don’t see them as cryptids…if you make the assumption that people are seeing something that is not known to them then there are cryptids there.

    But to me, if you’re making the misidentification assumption, then you’re probably not interested in cryptozoology in the first place…why would you be…you would be assuming that it is all hoaxes, misidentifications, etc. and that everyone who believes in “cryptids” are just goofy.

    I think cryptozoology can encompass critters from the bottom of the ocean–it’s a matter of the hunt for unknown animals in the first place. People like to again assume that if you are into cryptozoology (Assuming you even know what the word means…), you’re hunting for the big three (I guess that’s an assumption too, because your big three may not be my big three:). I think the new species found in the oceans still fall into that category of “cryptozoology” because even though someone may not have been activley looking for an elusive six gilled shark, said investigators were still looking for new lifeforms previously unknown.

    I think where new species being discovered comes into play for the cryptozoologist, is that it validates the science in the first place. The debunker crowd (and not all of them…don’t go getting all wired on me), often takes the stance that “it is extremely unlikely that such a creature exists” or my other favorite–”no new animals that will be discovered will be large animals…those have all been discovered.” And finding new species–six gilled sharks, collosal squids, etc. gives credence that there are indeed still large animals roving the earth that have escaped detection so far, opening the door for the possibility that things like BF, Nessie, Caddie, Yeti, etc. are out there.

    Whether animals showing up in places where they are not normally found to habitate qualifies as a cryptid, I fence sit there. They’re not of prime importance to me personally, and while I may say, “Huh, that’s interesting,” when I read such accounts, they don’t do it for me cryptozoologically speaking.:)

  8. Fhqwhgads responds:

    Loren: At one point, the platypus would undoubtedly have been considered a “cryptid”, but once it was recognized as real and a type specimen was available, it ceased to be a “cryptid”. Likewise, the kraken is a creature of legend, whereas the giant squid is a creature of biology. This is one reason why I think “cryptid” does not directly apply to the real animal (when there is one) behind the witness reports, but to the hypothesis or model constructed from witnesses. So, for example, when a chupacabras is described as “a reptile-like being, appearing to have leathery or scaly greenish-gray skin and sharp spines or quills running down its back”, the question is whether any real animal fits that description. Hairless canine roadkill clearly does not, so the question is not, “Are chupacabras hairless canines?” but, as I said before, “Do any real animals correspond to the descriptions of chupucabras?” (And, maybe, “How could anyone mistake a hairless dog for a reptile with sharp spines running down its back?”)

    In a Platonic sense, then, the “cryptid” exists whether or not it corresponds to any real animal. That kind of existence is not very interesting, of course, but my point is that it is important to be clear about the difference between the hypothetical animal and the real animal.

    (And, by the way, the coelacanth is not an extraordinarily deep-water fish, being “commonly found at depths of 90 to 200m”. Even so, it was probably beyond the reach of traditional fishermen working only with muscle and sail.)

    springheeledjack: Why should you care what I assume to be behind reports of lake monsters? If cryptozoology is meant to be a science, not just an idle hobby, it’s about what can be demonstrated, not what can be assumed.

    As it is, any list of cryptids invariably includes the Loch Ness Monster. This particular lake monster has been the subject of numerous serious searches, with only the faintest possible claims for supporting evidence. Given the circumstances, yes, I’d say that there is practically no chance that a large unknown animal lives in that lake. Given the similarity of the description of the Loch Ness Monster to other purported lake monsters in less well-studied lakes, I suspect that their sightings also arise from misidentification. I’m open to being proved wrong — it would be very cool to discover a large, unknown animal in, say, Lake Champlain — but it would require proof.

  9. springheeledjack responds:

    Fhq–Personally I don’t care what you assume about lake cryptids, I’m merely pointing out that by your reasoning, you don’t see lake critters as cryptids, but misidentifications. Period.

    I do agree that cryptozoology is a science…it is looking for answers, but you are wrong to assume that just because answers haven’t been found yet on certain fronts like Loch Ness, it doesn’t mean that cryptozoology is not a science. That was the point of debating the word, cryptid. As I said earlier, cryptid, for me refers to what Heuvelmans talked about as hunting for hidden creatures. The coelacanth is merely one fish that was ASSumed extinct, but known and occasionally caught by fishermen.

    People make the wrong assumptions about cryptozoology and the fact that it represents only the “biggies” like BF, Nessie and the Yeti. Those are the critters that get the most press, but in fact cryptozoology is concerned with all kinds of animals that “show up” that have formally been unknown or thought extinct. This site is case in point. Loren and others are always coming forward with new discoveries that are obtained in the world, from giant manta rays, to new species of frogs, etc. That is all within the scope of cryptozoology.

    It’s about finding new creatures that are hidden, and unknown to the bulk of the population of the world.

    As for loch ness, I don’t agree with you at all. “Faintest possible claims?” The history of Ness and what lies within can hardly be summed up in that sort of statement. You’re welcome to your opinion, but so am I. Loch Ness is worth further study as much as any cryptid. If you don’t choose it as a worthy focus, be my guest. That’s another important facet of cryptozoology–there’s enough avenue’s to investigate to keep everyone busy.

    And once again we get down to proof, which has been an ongoing debate around here. By proof you mean body–no, a solid photo, or solid movie won’t stand up–there’s too much and too many ways to doctor such things these days, and for any debunker, it’s an easy out. And really that is what people want– a carcass that can be studied, identified, and so on.

    Should we get our corpses? Depends on your views…it would solve the question irrefutably, and then you could move on to the next cryptid…after all, they’re just animals…aren’t they? :)



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