I love English, especially unusual words. I really enjoyed reading Graeme’s recent blog about the lost words of our language. It got me thinking about words in general. One really strange word that we have is gnu. Not only does it end in u (how many others can you think of – not many, I bet!) but the g is also pronounced even though it’s next to an n. I couldn’t think of another English word where that happens – can you?
Gnus are also called wildebeests, which is another funny word as you’d think it would be wildbeasts. They are native to Africa and you are most likely to have seen them being chased by lions or cheetahs in nature programmes on the telly box.
As with other prey animals, gnus live in large herds in order to protect themselves. They will also mingle amongst zebra which gives both species an added bonus. Gnus are attuned to the warning calls of other animals, including baboons, and this can reduce their chances of being attacked.
When you watch them on the TV, you might think they are unthinking, unfeeling, plodding daft animals. You’d be wrong! A herd of gnus has a ‘pack mentality’ (rather like bees) and possesses something called ‘swarm intelligence’ where the herd moves in a certain, organised way – without any one individual having knowledge of how it is done. Aerial photography has shown this to be the case and research reveals that obstacles are overcome by the whole herd, as if they are acting as one organism. This shouldn’t really seem that surprising – if ants and bees do it, then why not the larger creatures? It’s only size that’s the difference.
Probably the most famous gnu of the present day is the GNU Project – a free software project. Unsurprisingly, the GNU Project’s mascot is a drawing of a gnu!
If you’re interested in the natural world then you might like our Nature quizzes. We have more than 60, and each of them is free to play. Have a go and test your natural history knowledge today. Who knows what natural wonders are just waiting to be discovered at the click of a mouse!
In the meantime, if you have an unusual favourite word or know another GN word with both letters being pronounced, then let us know in the box below – we are awaiting your reply!