8 words where the cows literally come home
Cows provide us many things: milk, cheese, butter, beef, leather…words? Yes, at the root of a number of everyday English words we can find old Latin, Greek, and Germanic words for ’cow’ and ‘oxen’. Let’s graze on a little etymology and see where the ‘cows’ come home.
Originally, this brass instrument – historically trumpeted in battles and on hunts, and sometimes moonlighting as a drinking vessel – was constructed from the horns of oxen. You can still hear this history in its etymology: bugle comes from the Latin būculus, ‘young ox’, a diminutive of bōs, ‘ox’.
Over the centuries, French fashioned būculus into bugle, first naming the beast of burden and later the instrument made from its horn. English sounded bugle by the late 1300s. In some contexts and dialects, bugle named the extinct aurochs and bulls in addition to the instrument.
Butter, as we know, ultimately comes from cows – and so too might the word. First recorded in Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, or remedies, butter spreads from the Old English butere, in turn churned from the Latin butyrum, which is skimmed from the Greek βούτυρον (boutryon) before it.
Many etymologists have suspected the Greek boutryon sticks together its words βοῦς (bous, ‘ox, cow’) and τυρός (tyros, ‘cheese’.) If this is the case, butter literally means ‘cow-cheese’. But butter wasn’t native to the ancient Greeks and Romans; they were oil-based cultures, and may have imported the product, and word, as a medicinal ointment from Scythian nomads in the Near East.
For the ancients, a stick of butter a day apparently kept the doctor away. But butter isn’t the only ‘cow’ word with medical applications. In the late 1790s, British scientist Edward Jenner concocted the first vaccine when he inoculated against smallpox using cowpox. This problem smallpox was called variolae vaccinae, ‘smallpox of the cow’. Vaccinae, or ‘of the cow’, is an adjective form of vacca, another term for ‘cow’. By 1800, Jenner’s process of inoculation was called vaccination, with the noun vaccine emerging later in the century.
Spanish herded Latin’s vacca into vaca, ‘cow’, calling cowboys and cattle-drivers, especially in the Americas, vaqueros. American English-speakers, corralling the word into their sound system, turned vaquero into buckaroo. Buckaroo is attested for ‘cowboy’ by 1852.
Peculiar is a peculiar word. Today, we mainly use it two ways: as an adjective for ‘strange’ or ‘odd’ and in the phrase peculiar to, ‘belonging exclusively to’. What do these two ideas have to do with each other and how do they concern cows?
English took peculiar directly from Latin’s pecūliāris, ‘one’s own, private, personal’, but literally ‘related to one’s pecūlium’. Pecūlium was ‘private property’, chief of which was once cattle, called pecū in Latin. When English borrowed the word in the late 15th century, peculiar’s evolution was already underway, meaning ‘distinctive’ or ‘unique’, from which the modern peculiar issued by the 1600s. Pecuniary, impecunious, and the rare peculate (‘to embezzle’) also derive from pecū.
Philologists think the Latin pecū comes from a hypothetical ancient Indo-European root, peku, ‘livestock’, hence ‘wealth’ or ‘movable property’. In Latin, as we saw, peku became pecū. But after thousands of years and many twists and turns, peku also became the English fee.
Fee has dual influences: the Old English feoh, meaning ‘cattle’ or ‘wealth’, and the French-based fief, or ‘feudal estate’, broadly speaking. (Fief and feudal are indeed related.) Over time, fee extended to a ‘payment’, though its medieval senses continue in real estate (e.g. in fee). Each time you have to fork over a few quid, you might say you’re parting with a little etymological ‘cow’.
Fellow comes from the Old English féolaga, recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for ‘someone who shares with another in a possession or in the performance of any work’. The term comes a fellow tongue, Old Norse, félage, which the Oxford English Dictionary explains as a ‘laying together of money’, thus ‘business partnership’. The fé- is related to our word fee – again, with the ancient meaning of ‘cow’ – and –lage, lay. Think about that the next you snuggle up to your bedfellow.
Historians describe hecatombs as ‘great public sacrifices’ in Ancient Greece and Rome. But don’t let the spelling mislead you: the –tomb in hecatomb has nothing to do with our burial tomb. The final -b is the last vestige of the Greek word bous, ‘ox’, as we saw in butter. Way back, a hekatombe (ἑκατόμβη) was a sacrificial ‘offering of 100 oxen’, joining hekaton (ἑκατόν, ‘one hundred’) to bous. Hekaton also shows up in the prefix hecto- (e.g. hectolitre) and hectare (‘one hundred acres) – where plenty of cattle can graze.