The word gnu is consistently pronounced with two syllables as "g-noo", with the g clearly enunciated, and the n unpalatalised. The song also plays on silent letters in other words such as "k-now" and "w-ho", and adds initial g's to various words beginning with n.
Michael Flanders introduces the piece with a humorous monologue explaining how he came to write it. He tells the story of a car — "great big flashy thing, with teeth; engine at both ends" — that is the bane of his existence, since it constantly occupies the one spot in the road outside his house where he can comfortably get from wheelchair to car and vice versa. The licence number, he explains, is 346 GNU. The song itself then begins, and consists of a brief piano introduction and two similar sung verses, each preceded by a verse spoken by Michael Flanders. Donald Swann neither speaks nor sings in this item.
In the first verse, the singer is at the zoo when he meets a man who claims to know all the animals, but misidentifies a gnu as a "helk"; the gnu corrects him. In the second verse, he has taken furnished lodgings, and wakes up in the night to see a stuffed hunting trophy above his bed; he is trying to decide whether the animal's head could be a bison, an okapi or a hartebeest, when he seems to hear a voice, asserting indignantly that it is a "g-nu, a-g-nother g-nu".
Flanders and Swann first performed and recorded this song in their revue At the Drop of a Hat. It was released as a single on the Parlophone label in 1957 under the title "A Gnu", and produced by future Beatles producer George Martin.
In popular culture
- Richard Stallman mentions "The Gnu" in connection with the naming of the GNU project in a 2002 interview.
- The song is performed by a gnu and some Whatnots in episode 519 of The Muppet Show (with guest Chris Langham).
- John Lithgow has a recording of the song on his album Singin' in the Bathtub.
- The song was the basis of the character Gary Gnu from The Great Space Coaster. Gary Gnu even performed the song on one episode of the show.
- The song was adapted (with changed lyrics) for a series of 1970s animated TV adverts for Typhoo tea, featuring an anthropomorphic gnu, with the tagline "For the tea that picks you up, pick up Typhoo".
- The letters "NU" indicate the car was in fact registered in the North of England, hundreds of miles from Flanders' house. See Vehicle registration plates of the UK
- "Technically Speaking - An Interview With Richard Stallman, Inventor Of The GNU OS".[dead link]
- "The Gnu" on the Flanders and Swann website
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