What is a “cryptid”?

What meanings are in circulation?

Here’s the definition, as I noted in my 1999 book, co-authored with Jerome Clark, Cryptozoology A to Z. I share it with those on Cryptomundo that are not aware of the full meaning. And throw it out for discussion and debate by those that feel it has expanded or shrunk.


“Cryptid” is a relatively new word used among professionals and laypeople to denote an animal of interest to cryptozoology. John E. Wall of Manitoba coined it in a letter published in the summer 1983 issue of the ISC Newsletter (vol. 2, no. 2, p. 10), published by the International Society of Cryptozoology. Recently “cryptid” was recognized by the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster as a word of legitimate coinage, though it has yet to appear in their dictionary [as of 1999].

[By the way, whatever happened to John E. Wall? Where is he today?]

Cryptids are either unknown species of animals or animals which, though thought to be extinct, may have survived into modern times and await rediscovery by scientists. “Cryptid” is derived from “crypt,” from the Greek kryptos (hidden); “id,” from the Latin ides, a patronymic suffix; and the Greek “ides,” which means “in sense.” When the suffix id is used it typically applies to an implied lineage or similar usages, as in “perseid” (meteors appearing to originate from Perseus, typically around August 11).

Bernard Heuvelmans’s definition of cryptozoology itself was exact: “The scientific study of hidden animals, i.e., of still unknown animal forms about which only testimonial and circumstantial evidence is available, or material evidence considered insufficient by some!”

Over the last ten years some have suggested that the science of cryptozoology should be expanded to include many animals as “cryptids,” specifically including the study of out-of-place animals, feral animals, and even animal ghosts and apparitions. In [the journal] Cryptozoology, Heuvelmans rejects such notions with typical thoroughness, and not a little wry humor:

Admittedly, a definition need not conform necessarily to the exact etymology of a word. But it is always preferable when it really does so which I carefully endeavored to achieve when I coined the term “cryptozoology.” All the same being a very tolerant person, even in the strict realm of science, I have never prevented anybody from creating new disciplines of zoology quite distinct from cryptozoology. How could I, in any case?

So, let people who are interested in founding a science of “unexpected animals,” feel free to do so, and if they have a smattering of Greek and are not repelled by jaw breakers they may call it”aprosbletozoology” or “apronoeozoology” or even “anelistozoology.” Let those who would rather be searching for “bizarre animals” create a “paradoozoology,” and those who prefer to go a hunting for “monstrous animals,” or just plain “monsters,” build up a “teratozoology” or more simply a “pelorology.”

But for heavens sake, let cryptozoology be what it is, and what I meant it to be when I gave it its name over thirty years ago!

Unfortunately, many of the creatures of most interest to cryptozoologists do not, in themselves, fall under the blanket heading of cryptozoology. Thus, many who are interested in such phenomena as the so-called Beasts of Bodmin Moor (not unknown species but a known species albeit in an alien environment) and the Devonshire/Cornwall “devil dogs” (not “animals” or even “animate” in the accepted sense of the word, and thus only of marginal interest to scientific cryptozoologists) think of these creatures as cryptids.

More broadly, then, we do not know whether a cryptid is an unknown species of animal, or a supposedly extinct animal, or a misidentification, or anything more than myth until evidence is gathered and accepted one way or another. Until that proof is found, the supposed animal carries the label “cryptid,” regardless of the potential outcome and regardless of various debates concerning its true identity. When it is precisely identified, it is no longer a cryptid, because it is no longer hidden.

While Heuvelmans created cryptozoology [independently, and later than the coining of the word by Ivan T. Sanderson] as a goal-oriented discipline (endeavoring to prove the existence of hidden animals), the fact that some of these cryptids will turn out not to be new species does not invalidate the process by which that conclusion is reached and does not retroactively discard their prior status as cryptids. For example, the large unknown “monster” in a local lake is a cryptid until it is caught and shown to be a known species such as an alligator. It is no longer hidden and no longer carries the label “cryptid,” but that doesn’t mean it never was a cryptid.

It is often impossible to tell which category an unknown animal actually inhabits until you catch it. Until then, it is a cryptid.


© 1999 Loren Coleman/Jerome Clark. Not to be used without prior permission, and then only with proper citation.


The definition is from Cryptozoology A to Z (NY: Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1999) pp. 75-77.

One Response

  1. Loren Coleman
    Loren Coleman December 17, 2005 at 9:36 pm |

    Heuvelmans usually discussed cryptids as animals that were large enough to have an impact on humans, thus they were animals the size of dogs and cats, and bigger.

    Ethnoknown is an important factor, and many of these examples (e.g. the coelacanth) were known by the locals. Debate between supporters and skeptics is not significant in determining if a cryptid is ethnoknown.

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