Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects/The Etymology of the Name 'Emu'


THE name 'emu' has an interesting history. It occurs in the forms 'emia' and 'eme' in Purchas his Pilgrimage, in 1613. 'In Banda and other islands,' says Purchas, 'the bird called emia or eme is admirable.' We should probably pronounce 'eme' in two syllables, as e-mé. This eme or emia was doubtless a cassowary—probably that of Ceram. The idea that it was a native of the Banda Group appears to have existed in some quarters at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but the idea was assuredly an erroneous one. So large a struthious bird as the cassowary requires more extensive feeding-grounds and greater seclusion than was to be found in any island of the Banda Group, and, as at the present day so in the past, Ceram was the true home of the Malayan cassowary, which found and which finds in the extensive forests of that island the home adapted to its requirements. It is, however, equally certain that at an early date the Ceram cassowary was imported into Amboyna and probably into Banda also, and we know of an early instance of its being introduced into Java, and from Java into Europe. When the first Dutch expedition to Java had reached that island, and when the vessels of which it was composed were lying at anchor off Sindaya, some Javans brought a cassowary on board Schellenger's ship as a gift, saying that the bird was a rare one and that it swallowed fire. At least, so they were understood to say, but that they really did say so is somewhat doubtful. However, the sailors put the matter to the test by administering to the bird a dose of hollands; perhaps the hollands was ignited and administered in the form of liquid fire, but it is not expressly stated that this was the case. This cassowary was brought alive to Amsterdam in 1597, and was presented to the Estates of Holland at the Hague.[1] A figure of it, under the name 'eme,' appears in the fourth and fifth German editions of the account of this voyage of the Dutch to Java, by Hulsius, published at Frankfort in 1606 and 1625. The figure is a fairly accurate representation of an immature cassowary.

Whence comes, let us ask, the name 'eme' and the later form, 'emu.' The New Historical English Dictionary suggests a derivation from a Portuguese word, 'ema,' signifying a crane. But no authority is quoted to prove that ema signifies, or ever signified, crane. On the other hand, various Portuguese dictionaries which have been consulted render 'ema' by 'casoar,' or state that the name 'ema' is applicable to several birds, of which the crane is not one. Pero de Magalhàes de Gandavo, in his Historia da Provincia Sancta Cruz, published in 1576, uses the name 'hema' in writing of the rhea or nandu.

It is worthy of note that the Arabic name of the cassowary is 'neâma', and that there were many Arab traders in the Malayan Archipelago at the time when the Portuguese first navigated it. The Portuguese strangely distorted Malay and Arabic names, and it would not be surprising if they reproduced 'neâma' as 'uma ema.'

The Eme

  1. Salvadori, referring to Hist. Gen. de Voy. VIII. p. 112, states that the Cassowary which was brought alive to Europe by the Dutch in 1597 belonged first to Count Solms van Gravenhage, then to the Elector Ernest van Keulen, and finally to the Emperor Rudolph II. Ornit. della Papuasia e delle Molucche. III. p. 481.