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Embracing the cattle

A story that keeps recycling the same episodes tends to become boring.  So today I’ll say goodbye to my horned friends, though there is so much left that is of interest. In dealing with cows, bulls, bucks, and the rest, an etymologist is constantly made to choose among three possibilities: an ancient root with a transparent etymology (a rare case), a migratory word, or a sound-imitative formation. Like cattle breeders, words are nomads, but some are more sedentary than the others.

Here is a quotation from an excellent article on the origin of the Russian word for “bull”: “The various ancient and modern [Indo-European] languages show a well-developed and rather consistent terminology for cattle, sheep, goats, swine, and horses…. There are normally two terms for the male of the species: one for the castrated male, which is used for work or fattened for slaughter, and another for the breeding male, whose main duty is procreation. The majority of words for the breeding male refer in some way to his potency, and most of the rest refer to his strength, speed, or other ‘manly’ qualities. Not a single term for a breeding male animal is related in any way to the sound the animal makes, nor, with less than a half-dozen exceptions out of a very large number of names, is any name for any type of cattle, sheep, goats, swine, or horses onomatopoeic in origin.”

A yoke of oxen. This is how plowing began. Image credit: Bow yokes on a bullock team by Cgoodwin. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is an important generalization, but, even if we disregard the idea of exceptions, it assumes that the etymology of the words we have before us is known, and the reasoning becomes partly circular. Also, the author’s parade example is bull, allegedly associated with swelling and balls (testicles), and we have seen that this venerable etymology is less dependable than it seems. I may add that the association between a testicle and a ball, so obvious to English speakers, is rare. Testicles are much more often thought of as eggs. In Germanic, only Dutch zaadbal “seed ball” is close to English. German has Hode, from “covering,” and Icelandic eista goes back to the idea of “egg.” The origin of Latin testiculis and its ties with the root of such words as testify (Latin testis “witness”) have been discussed for centuries. If, as mentioned last week, bull does mean “swollen,” this happens because the animal is huge, swells with rage, or whatever. Anyway, testicles don’t swell, the penis does, a detail demurely passed over in the traditional etymology, and the English speakers who called testicles balls did not know the Indo-European origin of the word phallus.

I will now make good on my promise and say something about the derivation of ox, the only English noun that has retained the ending of the old declension in the plural (-en in children has a different origin). The word is very old. It occurs in the Gothic translation of the New Testament (the fourth century), in Luke XIV: 19 (“I have bought five yoke of oxen”). The Greek text has boûs. In Classical Greek, the word meant “ox, cow” and “bull.” All the Germanic cognates are like Old Engl. oxa. The suggestions will now seem familiar and unexciting. The cognates are many, including a close analog in Sanskrit, so that perhaps the word has a solid Indo-European root. Such a root has been proposed: it means “to moisten,” or, by extension, possibly “to impregnate.” Predictably, one runs into Turkic ökür “ox,” and we find ourselves on familiar ground. Only two conclusions are irrefutable: ox is not a sound-imitative word, and, when it was coined, it did not mean “a castrated bull.”

Such is the modern idea of the chieftains mentioned by the Venerable Bede. Image credit: Engraving depicting the brothers Hengist and Horsa, legendary leaders of the English invasion of Britain by Sir Edward Parrott. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Before the curtain drops on this series, it may be useful to say something on some words for “cattle.” The oldest Germanic word is known from Gothic: it is faihu (ai has the value of e in Engl. echo). By the First Consonant Shift, faihu corresponds sound for sound to Latin pecu or pecus (the same meaning, and even the declension is the same; Germanic f and h derive from non-Germanic p and k). Dutch vee, German Vieh, and Icelandic are the reflexes (that is, continuations) of the same protoform. But the Gothic word meant “gold” and “movable goods.” The ancient equation “cattle” = “riches” is universal: those who possessed a lot of cattle were well-to-do, wealthy, rich. In the other Old Germanic languages, the cognates of faihu designated both “cattle” and “property; money.” Historical linguists discerned the root of pecus in Classical Greek pékein “I shear,” pókos “fleece,” and perhaps in Engl. fight (from feohtan), on the assumption that the Germanic verb meant “to pluck,” because at one time, wool was plucked, not shorn from sheep (see the post for October 25, 2017) and because “cattle” first meant “sheep.”

Medieval Latin capitale ~ captale “property” (vivum capitale “livestock, cattle,” literally, “so many head of cattle”) has reached English in three forms: cattle, chattel, and capital. The connection between cattle and money can also be noticed in the English words pecuniary, from Latin (Latin pecunia “money”: pecu ~ pecus “cattle,” see above) and, less obviously, peculiar, for Latin peculium meant “property in cattle, private property.” In English, peculiar turned up in the fifteenth century and passed through the stages “that is one’s own, particular” and then “uncommon, odd, specific.” The noun fee also belongs to our story. Originally, the word meant “estate in land on feudal tenure.” It emerged in Anglo-Norman and is cognate with pecu ~ pecus and the rest. Fief (feoff) and very probably feudal belong here too.

It follows that cattle is a borrowed word. The native word for horned animals has survived in Dutch (rund) and German (Rind). Both have an English congener (rother “ox”), but few people will remember it. In the past, all of them began with an h: Old Engl. hrūðeru, Old High German hrind, and so forth. The root (hr), here on the zero grade of ablaut, appears to be the same as in the word hor-n; if so, then the original sense of rother was “horned animals.” Probably hart “stag” (German Hirsch) has the same root; then again “a horned animal” (but herd is not related to hart). King Hrothgar, whose kingdom Beowulf rid of the monster Grendel and the monster’s mother, had a palace called Heorot “Hart.” Perhaps antlers graced it, but this is just a guess. Those curious about the ramifications of the root horn will remember from the post on cow that the Slavic word for “cow” is krava ~ korova, etc. Kr-, naturally, corresponds to Germanic hr– by the First Consonant Shift, which I’ll mention here for the last time.

Perhaps one day I’ll make a foray into the hornless animal world. Then we’ll meet Hengest (or Hengist) and Horsa, the legendary equine conquerors of ancient Britain.

This is probably what the famous mead hall once looked like. No longer impressive, but inside it must have been great. Image credit: Reconstruction of a viking house from the ring castle Fyrkat near Hobro, Denmark by Malene Thyssen. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Now that the Congress has been announced, many of our readers may be wondering how to reform our chaotic spelling. I don’t think all the inconsistencies of English orthography can be liquidated in one fell swoop. To gain public support, the reformers should, in my opinion, first suggest the measures against which even the most conservative opponents will be unable to offer any reasonable arguments. 1) Respell foreign and some native words with non-functional double (and even single) letters. Address, committee, and their likes; perhaps succumb and so forth. No one needs till, acknowledge, acquaint, and acclaim, to say nothing of chthonic. Change y to i in sphynx, syringe, stymied, and their likes. Almost all of them are Greek. We can certainly live even with sintax and sinthesis. English is not Greek. 2) Orthography is based not only on the phonic principle. Thus, it would be wonderful to remove k- in knife, but it should probably stay in know, to save its ties with acknowledge (aknowldge!). 3) I would like to repeat my main thesis. After more than a century of inaction, we should first strive for a political victory and try to persuade the public that something can and should be done. If we succeed in making this step, the rest will take care of itself (with patience and time).

Featured image credit: Reindeer pulling a sleigh on a farm in Russia by Elen Schurova. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    Concerning “balls” (testicles), the Greek has “bobolia”. A famous heroine naval commander in the Greek War of Independence of 1821 was called “Bouboulina”. Which means “a woman with balls”.

    The word “ball” may be connected to the Greek word “bala”. While the word “horn” may derive from the Greek “honi” (cone).

    Your proposals re:English spelling reform has the unintended (or intended) consequence of obscuring the etymological origins of a word. And that, of course, is purely political.

    The only spelling reform that makes sense to me is making English more phonic for simplicity. Anything else is suspect.


  2. Mel Topf

    I regret that your efforts will be spent on yet another attempt to “reform” English spelling. Usage, in a reasonably free society, is, and should be, determined by use, not by some top-down imposition of experts. You’d like simpler language? See the novel “1984”, a double plus good book. “Whom” is not disappearing owing to authority but simply to the dynamics of usage. An interesting if narrow example of persistence of “unofficial” use despite official change is a street in Manhattan. Sixth Avenue was renamed “Avenue of the Americas” around 1950. For decades no street sign or map referred to “Sixth Avenue.” Yet to this day no New Yorker refers to the street except by that name. (Born in 1941, I grew up in NYC.) Finally, after more than a half century, the city authorities relented and added “Sixth Avenue” to street signs. One reason is that tourists were confused by spoken references to Sixth Avenue when no such street existed. I suggest that the “k” in the spelling of knife, for example, is the kind of thing that is annoying mainly to the kind of people who are annoyed by that kind of thing. Without Big Brother’s help. I fear the spelling conference will not accomplish much to affect our rich, bloomin’, buzzing confusion of a language.

  3. Maggie Catambay

    I like the reindeer photo in this blog!

  4. John Cowan

    Note also rinderpest, a now-extinct disease of cattle, borrowed directly from German.

    There are so few roots still in use beginning with kn that they hardly seem worth fixing. I make it knack, knap, knave, knead, knee, kneel, knell, knickers, knife, knight, knit, knob, knock, knoll, knot, know, knuckle — 17 roots in all. Knesset, k’nocker, knish do not count, as the k is pronounced.

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