Ignored Inventions and Koko's New Name

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This Day in Science History: Koko the Gorilla changes her name

January 28, 1988

It was 1988 — and Koko the Gorilla was on top of the world. Due to an expansive sign-language vocabulary, she was able to communicate incredible thoughts like, “Me hungry,” and, “When will you teach me Howard Zinn’s version of American history, instead of this elementary school textbook pablum?”

After hobnobbing with celebs and appearing on the cover of National Geographic, she had become the celebrity that 1980s Western lowland gorilla fans craved. Then it started to go to her head.

Koko was immediately labeled a “diva” and total “prima donna,” despite Koko’s sign language protests that, “These labels are reductive and, frankly, sexist,” as well as, “Me still hungry.” So she decided changing her name might help change her identity.

It was at an early morning meeting that Koko announced her name was now “Millicent Gorilla,” to be shortened to “Millie” only by the closest of friends. “Millicent dignified,” she signed. “Millicent classy.”

Millicent née Koko had startled her keepers, but they didn’t know what to do. Millicent was very large and strong. So they assented, offering Millicent whatever she wanted as long as she wouldn’t crush them. Millicent, emboldened, requested to go shopping for "power suits” with padded shoulders and large banana pockets.

Soon, however, Millicent realized her new name had limits. Because she’d changed her name, she lost lucrative endorsement deals with Nintendo’s Power Glove, Gorilla Glue, and, of course, Cocoa Puffs. Millicent just didn’t appeal to advertisers, except for Depends Diapers (for Adult Gorillas).

So just a few days after telling her trainers she had to change her name, Millicent requested that she be “Koko” once again. “But two things first,” she signed, a new humility behind her gestures.

“First, let trainer know she just a poor man’s Jane Goodall. Even if Koko not Millicent any more.”

Koko sighed.

“Second thing: me hungry.”

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