The name “orangutan” (also written orang-utan, orang utan, orangutang, and ourang-outang) is derived from the Malay and Indonesian words orang meaning “person” and hutan meaning “forest”, thus “person of the forest”. Orang Hutan was originally not used to refer to apes, but to forest-dwelling humans.
The Malay words used to refer specifically to the ape are maias and mawas, but it is unclear if those words refer to just orangutans, or to all apes in general. The first attestation of the word to name the Asian ape is in Dutch physician Jacobus Bontius’ 1631 Historiae naturalis et medicae Indiae orientalis – he reported that Malays had informed him the ape was able to talk, but preferred not to “lest he be compelled to labour”. The word appeared in several German-language descriptions of Indonesian zoology in the 17th century. The likely origin of the word comes specifically from the Banjarese variety of Malay.
Cribb et al. (2014) suggest that Bontius’ account referred not to apes (which were not known from Java) but rather to humans suffering some serious medical condition (most likely endemic cretinism) and that his use of the word was misunderstood by Nicolaes Tulp, who was the first to use the term in a publication.
The word was first attested in English in 1691 in the form orang-outang, and variants with -ng instead of -n as in the Malay original are found in many languages. This spelling (and pronunciation) has remained in use in English up to the present, but has come to be regarded as incorrect. The loss of “h” in Utan and the shift from n to -ng has been taken to suggest that the term entered English through Portuguese. In 1869, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-creator of modern evolutionary theory, published his account of Malaysia’s wildlife: The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise.
The name of the genus, Pongo, comes from a 16th-century account by Andrew Battell, an English sailor held prisoner by the Portuguese in Angola, which describes two anthropoid “monsters” named Pongo and Engeco. He is now believed to have been describing gorillas, but in the 18th century, the terms orangutan and pongo were used for all great apes. Lacépède used the term Pongo for the genus following the German botanist Friedrich von Wurmb who sent a skeleton from the Indies to Europe.