John "Bridge" Martin


Back in January or so we on ERBlist were talking about the meaning of Ungowa. I decided to watch some old Tarzan movies to do a little first-hand research. I wrote an article which I put in ERBapa, which came out in early February. I intended to put the article on ERBlist after it appeared in ERBapa, but I forgot until now. I remembered because today I was watching "Tarzan and the Leopard Woman" and it caused me to remember about Ungawa. More about that movie's ungawa in a separate post.

Here's my Ungawa article, which those who are in ERBapa have already seen:

Not all Tarzan fans can do the Tarzan movie yell proficiently, but just about everyone can say Umgawa, Ungowa, Oongowa, or however one thinks it should be spelled or pronounced.

And it's a common joke among fans as to what the word actually means. Some see it as an all-purpose term for just about everything, and others see it as having one specific meaning.

The term came up on the erblist.com discussion list the other day, a subject that sort of morphed out of an earlier discussion on the Tarzan movie yell itself.

A website called slangsite.com defines ungowa as follows: An exclamation of joy, triumph, or a battle cry.

ERBlister Arthur Maxon pointed out another website, http://www.simnia.com/fll/tarzan/tarzan_languages.htm Which had this discussion of the term:

Ardent Tarzan fans are well aware of several words such as umgawa used repeatedly in the Tarzan movies. These words are not from the Ape dictionary, but where are they from? There is a common belief that most of these terms are from Swahili, but I believe most of them are not.

One official reference about the MGM Tarzan films using some Swahili is the bonus interview feature called Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle (section Casting Jane) in the DVD set The Tarzan Collection. The following consecutive quotes are from that feature:

Scott Tracy Griffin: In the novels Burroughs created a whole language for Tarzan that the apes spoke. In the films they used a combination of Swahili and made-up words. One of my favorite is umgawa, which can mean anything you want it to mean. It could mean stop, go away, come here, danger, elephant carry boy to safety. Umgawa's a terrific word that is another of our cultural touchstones.

Rudy Behlman: And originally it meant get down, but as time progressed and the movies went on, it seemed to have a multiple layer of meaning.

The same website went on to quote from yet another website (which appears to be now defunct):

The native language was at first borrowed from the local tribes that Van Dyke had worked with during the African expedition for Trader Horn. Some words like igmoo (house), pasi, pasi (hurry up) and mahowani (elephants) found their way into the early Tarzan features. Even the (in)famous umgawa (get down) was borrowed, and became an all-purpose expression which could mean anything the context required. Later expressions like wakashinda nippa doo and oona toona beebee were sheer inventions, and both Sheffield and Weissmuller carried them with them to the RKO Tarzan films, and they became part of Bomba, the Jungle Boy's vocabulary as well.

However, the website creator said a check of an on-line Swahili dictionary showed no word like umgowa.

Allen Ellis pointed out on ERBlist that Bill Hillman's erbzine reported that "The word Umgawa was the invention of MGM screenwriter Cyril Hume. The all-purpose command Ungawa, which could mean good, up, down, stop or go" (yes, both spellings in the same paragraph).

ERBlister Rob Donkers, as part of the on-line discussion, searched two Weissmuller movie scripts that he had on hand, and reported that the only time he saw the word come up was in the script for Tarzan and His Mate, when Tarzan commands an elephant. But the word, as written in the script, is egow.

The other script Rob searched was Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, which had nothing that he could find related to umgawa, egow, or any derivatives.

So, many knowledgeable fans have given their opinions, but it's also fun to find out for oneself. Since I hadn't watched those old Tarzan movies in awhile, I got them down off the shelf. One evening, I watched Tarzan the Ape Man followed by Tarzan and His Mate. The next morning I enjoyed Tarzan Escapes, followed by Tarzan Finds a Son. My original plan was to watch just those four and see what I could learn about umgowa. However, I was having so much fun that I decided to watch the other two in the Maureen O'Sullivan era. I watched Tarzan's Secret Treasure and Tarzan's New York Adventure. One of these days, maybe I'll finish watching all of the Weissmullers and, if I do, I may file a followup report.

Editor's Note: The meaning of ungowa, or variants thereof, is easily explained: Johnny Wineswiller was always long on muscle and short on attention span. In those years wherein the JW movies were made "handsome is never a detriment for dumb."

This observation is, of course, a bit irreverent and all in fun. Weismuller was known to take a drink or two, or three...

But here's what I learned about the way Tarzan talks, from watching the above named movies.

Tarzan the Ape Man: Egow, not umgowa, is the word you hear when you watch this movie. Tarzan abducts Jane and takes her high into a tree, then uses the command egow to drive away a curious ape. Later, while Tarzan is tearing up Jane’s handkerchief out of curiosity, he also tells a chimp to egow. Another time, when Tarzan is trying to get some shuteye, he orders yet another ape to egow. Tarzan uses the word egow one more time to send a chimp away after he has been told of Jane’s capture. In the other cases, egow appears to mean go or get out of here. Here, the chimp understands it to mean go get the elephants and bring them here to help me wreck the village, because that’s what the chimp does.

Tarzan and His Mate: Ungowa is first used by Tarzan to get rid of an ape which is making threatening gestures. Tarzan, at one point, uses a word that sounds like engoona, which may be a combo of egow and ungowa. To save Jane from a charging rhino, Tarzan pushes her out the way while yelling Ungowa (to her, not to the rhino).

Tarzan Escapes: It is in this movie that ungowa really seems to come into its own as a general use jungle term. It is first used as a command to the elephant charged with pulling the rope to raise the elevator in Tarzan and Jane's treehouse. A supporting comic-relief character named Rawlins then tries to operate the elevator by trying different phrases, such as "Going up," "All Aboard" and "Alley Up," before Jane calls down the correct word: Ungowa. Rawlins mistakes that as a name for the elephant, whose real name is Timba, calling it "Ungolly, or whatever your name is."

The command "gowa" is then given from the treehouse, and the elephant lets the elevator back down. One might assume that "gowa" means to go the opposite direction as "ungowa." However, this is the only instance where I heard the word used. Later in the film, the elephant lowers the elevator at the command of “ungowa.” After Tarzan learns of Jane's intentions to return, temporarily, to civilization, he goes off to pout, and when Cheta comes to comfort him he tells the simian to "ungowa!" Whether the command worked this time, or not, is uncertain, as Cheta is still patting the ape-man's forehead as the screen fades to black.

Later, Jane uses ungowa to warn Cheta to get away from some lion cubs. As the film nears its end, Tarzan's group makes its escape from the pursuing natives. Tarzan decides lead them through a dangerous cave, ordering "Naga-oona-ungowa." At that command, they all follow him. The cave, by the way, is called "oongatowa." After they are through the cave, Tarzan turns to the white villain, Captain Fry, and orders him to go back into the cave full of lizards and deadly pools, telling him "Umgowa! Umgowa!" while pointing in the direction he wants him to go, so there will be no misunderstanding.

The villain asks: "Haven't I the right to be heard?"

The answer is that only Tarzan has the right to be heard, and he says "Ungowa" one more time and the message is loud and clear.

Tarzan Finds a Son: Jane and Tarzan are raising Boy, who Cheta rescued from a crashed plane. When Boy swings from a vine by his feet, Tarzan warns: "Ungowa, boy!" When the safari enters Tarzan's domain, Jane invites them to dinner. Tarzan says "We go – umgowa!" Once again, the elevator is raised by an elephant who understands "ungowa." Tarzan overhears the safari members plotting about their plans to take Boy back to the U.S., so he sneaks into their camp and steals their guns. Cheta steals a camera and Tarzan tells him "ungowa," at which point the chimp accidentally takes a photo of Tarzan, waking up the camp by the flash. Tarzan throws the guns into a deep pool at the bottom of a grotto but later, at Jane's urging, decides to give the guns back. He is lowered on a vine tied at the top. He dives for the guns and ties them to the bottom of the vine and signals Jane to pull the vine up by shouting "Ungowa." Jane pulls up the guns, then cuts the vine, deliberately stranding Tarzan at the bottom of the grotto, thinking she's doing something in Boy's best interests, by allowing him to go back with the safari. They are, of course, all captured by hostile natives and Jane helps Boy escape to alert Tarzan. Tarzan tells Boy to lower a vine, and emphasizes it by shouting "Ungowa," which apparently means to do it with all alacrity. A short time later, when Timba shows up to try to knock a tree over so it will fall into the grotto, Tarzan shouts "Timba! Timba! Ungowa."

Tarzan’s Secret Treasure: When Rob Donkers looked at his script for this film, he couldn’t find "ungowa." And indeed, it is absent from virtually all of the movie, except near the end, and ungowa must have been added even though it wasn't in the script. The command is to elephants who are moving some trees at Tarzan's bidding.

Tarzan's New York Adventure: "Ungowa" is also pretty much missing from this movie, except near the end when Tarzan calls the circus elephants to help him out of a cage. He also uses the word "umgowa" to say goodbye to the elephants.

So, what does "ungowa" mean? It would seem that the basic meaning is "go," but it also is used in the sense of "come." So we might say that the true meaning of "ungowa" is "move." And it also means to move NOW! It could mean: "Move, and be quick about it." It could be a word which is dependent on the context of the situation for the full understanding of its meaning.