Almost everyone who goes on an African safari shouts out pumbaa from the vehicle. It’s because of The Lion King.
The animated movie was so successful that it transplanted a fictional name onto one of Africa’s oldest species. Even people from South Africa and Tanzania call this tusked pig a pumbaa!
So what’s the story? What does pumbaa actually mean? And did Disney really change the name of an animal?
Most Lion King Names Are Based on Swahili Words
Many of the names and phrases in The Lion King have a direct Swahili translation. It must have been easy for the script writers. Instead of making up names they could borrow everything from native Swahili.
- Simba means lion (quite appropriate 🙂 ).
- Nala, Simba’s childhood friend and future wife, means gift.
- Rafiki is friend.
- Sarabi, the queen of Pride Land, is mirage, which is very apt given how she fools Scar.
- Shenzi, the sassy leader of the hyena clan who sounds like Whoopi Goldberg, means savage in Swahili.
After they had exhausted Swahili, the script writers scoured other African languages. Mufasa translates as king in Manazoto.
Visit Africa and the only people saying hakuna matata will be hawkers trying to sell you something, such as a taxi ride, bracelet or safari. Hakuna matata really does mean no worries but it is a very old Swahili phrase that is no longer used (except with tourists).
The modern equivalent is hakuna shida. If you want to instantly reduce the price of a taxi ride or bracelet reply to hakuna matata with hakuna shida.
Warthog Means Ngiri in Swahili, Not Pumbaa
Pumbaa doesn’t mean warthog. It actually has a very complex meaning: “to be absentminded, careless, foolish, ignorant, lazy, stupid and negligent.” That is a lot of adjectives for just one word and character!
The Swahili word for warthog is ngiri.
However, many Tanzanians and Kenyans traditionally use pumbaa to describe a warthog. And this has nothing to do with The Lion King.
Warthogs regularly come into contact with villages and people. They usually cause havoc, scampering through a garden or village and making a mess of everything.
Shout or chase a warthog and it makes even more of a mess. These animals leave their dirty hoof-prints all over and then run off. They are foolish, ignorant, negligent and stupid. In one word – pumbaa!
So for many Swahili speakers, warthogs have always been called pumbaa. The Lion King script writers simply borrowed a popular turn of phrase to create the name for one of Disney’s most loved characters.
Fortunately the script writers took some more advice when they visited Africa. The Lion King was going to be called The King of the Jungle, until Disney actually visited Africa. They found out that lions live in just about every habitat, except the jungle!
Pumbaa also remains a common word used by gossiping women to describe their husbands. Pumbaa kazi is the phrase more commonly used by the husbands. It means to take it easy and amuse oneself.
Warthogs Are Not Stupid
These wild pigs are smarter than they look. For starters, pumbaas are still wild, whereas other pigs have been domesticated and are now bred purely for their meat.
And just watch how these warthogs fool a lion pride. It appears there is no way out as the lionesses have discovered the burrow. Then pumbaa makes a run for it and gets away!
This is the only one of the pig species that has adapted to surviving in the wilderness. They have an omnivorous diet and change their eating habits dependent on the season.
Their food includes insects, bark, grass, roots, bulbs, carrion, berries, fruits, and eggs. Sometimes they visit villages and steal eggs, using their impressive tusks to scare away chickens.
Pumbaas live in groups called sounders. Why sounders? We really don’t know but you can see this article for more interesting and unusual collective nouns for animals.
Most sounders consist of females and their young. Males only join them during the breeding season and the boars will fight aggressively for mating rights.
Not many piglets make it to adulthood. However, rather than being negligent and absentminded, warthogs will become foster mothers to other piglets. They demonstrate allosucking, meaning the piglets suckle from females that are not their mother.
One pumbaa adjective is correct. They can be lazy. Rather than digging their own burrows they will often just use the burrowed home of other animals. Still, is that being lazy, or being smart and conserving energy?
Pumbaa or Warthog on Safari
Let’s give pumbaa some slack. Warthogs have terrible eyesight so they can’t really help themselves when making a mess.
Plus, IQ tests show that the sus genus that includes all pigs, is smarter than the canidae dog family.
So maybe we shouldn’t be shouting out pumbaa on a safari, or listening to what Disney think of Africa. They almost named a multibillion dollar movie on something that is a complete myth!
And really, animals that talk! There is a very real Africa out there, and it’s not like The Lion King.
So next time you choose to watch that famous movie, think about going on an African safari as well.