Last month, thousands of young men and women finished high school. Some will go to college and become BA’s and BS’s, though nowadays, fewer and fewer choose this path. In any case, since May, I have been meaning to write a post about the word bachelor. There were two reasons for my procrastination: the origin of bachelor remains undiscovered, and I have nothing new to say about it. But even rehashing common knowledge is sometimes a useful procedure. So here we are.
No one doubts that bachelor came to Middle English at the end of the thirteenth century from Old French and meant “a young knight.” Some time later, the sense “university graduate” turned up. The Old French noun, the source of the English one, was bacheler “a young man aspiring to knighthood.” The other related forms are Italian baccalaro and so forth. Their common source must have sounded approximately like baccalaris, but only baccalarius, referring to some kind of peasant, and baccalaria “a kind of landed tenure” exist (see below).
Most conjectures about the etymology of this mysterious word were offered long ago. Bachelor looks like a Latin compound, possibly meaning “laurel berries,” from Latin bacca “berry” and laurus “laurel.” Samuel Johnson, the author of a famous dictionary (1755), explained: “Bachelors, being young, are of good hopes, like laurels in the berry.” Thomas Hearne, a noted antiquarian of the first half of the eighteenth century, traced bachelor to Latin baculus “stick,” because, he said, “when men had finished their exercises in the Schools, they then exercised themselves with sticks in the streets.” Did they? I have no notion. Noah Webster also considered baculus to be the etymon, but he took “stick” for “shoot,” that is, “offshoot.”
Finally, Old Irish bachlach “peasant; shepherd” (from the unattested form bakalākos), that is, “a man with a staff” was at one time pressed into service. Hensleigh Wedgwood, the main English etymologist of the pre-Skeat era, also wrote that there was “little doubt” (the most fateful turn of speech in historical reconstruction) about the Celtic origin of bachelor but cited the forms baches and bachgen: according to his hypothesis, the clue must have been hidden in Welsh bach “small, young.”
It was the French scholars Jean A. Schéler and August Brachet who put an end to this period of guess etymology. They cited the Vulgar (that is, post-Classical, popular) Latin noun baccalarius, originally “cowherd,” in which b had been allegedly replaced with v. The root turned out to be Latin vacca “cow” (Engl. vaccine, a word we now happen to know only too well, has this root.) This conjecture looked much more convincing than any of the previous ones, and Skeat accepted it in the first edition of his etymological dictionary. That dictionary, like the OED, was published in installments. By the time the entire volume had been printed, Skeat had withdrawn his positive assertion of his original idea and returned to Welsh (in the supplement Errata et Addenda).
Before going on, I should state only one fact that remains undisputed: whatever the etymology of bachelor, its original and principal sense was not “an unmarried man.” It referred to the young male’s inferior social and economic status. Incidentally, the Old English word for “bachelor” has come down to us. It was hago-steald, approximately “the owner of a piece of landed property” (haga continues into Modern English in the nearly forgotten form haw, recognizable in hawthorn). It also meant “retainer, young warrior.” “Unmarried” seemingly went back to the sense “independent.” In later German, the second component, related to –stald, meant nothing to speakers, and the word was changed to Hagestolz, with stolz “proud” (!) substituted for stald. Possibly, the original reference was to the younger brother as the owner of a “haw,” while the elder son inherited the chief house. (Such is one of the more reasonable explanations.) Curiously, the Norwegian dialectal word hogstall means “widow” (a sad form of independence!).
I have mentioned hago-steald because, if the etymon “cowherd” for bachelor was right, the Romance word turns out to be a compound, somewhat reminiscent of the Germanic one, a noun with a broad range of senses, from “landowner” to “retainer” and even “a man, not burdened with property.” The idea that in the Middle Ages, someone translated the Germanic feudal term into Romance looks at least plausible. Kin terms do sometimes go back to foreign words denoting one’s social and economic status. For example, husband is a borrowing from Scandinavian, originally a compound of hús “house” and bóndi “tenant, owner.”
In 1885, the section of the first volume of the OED with the word bachelor appeared. James A. H. Murray, the OED’s editor, offered a quick survey of the older conjectures. His verdict was: “Of doubtful origin.” Skeat, in the later editions of his dictionary, followed Murray, and so did all the other authoritative sources.
We remember that there have been attempts to connect bachelor with Latin vacca “cow.” The change of v to b needed an explanation. We’ll presently return to this difficulty. The key words in our search are baccalaria “a tenure, a form of feudal real estate” and baccalarius (a noun or an adjective applied to people). The suggested development may have been from bacca “cow” to the unattested word baccalis “having relation to cows” and baccalaria, “a place having relation to cows,” with reference to a minor place of farm dependency. The baccalarius of medieval charters may indeed have been a cowherd. Cow herding in Western Europe, like sheep herding in medieval Iceland, usually the charge of young people, was looked upon as the least prestigious occupation available. Hence a possible late sense of baccalarius “adolescent.” Now back to the v ~ b problem. Characteristically, the word baccalaria “the farm dependency” most often occurred in the part of southern France in which b and v alternated in a rather haphazard way. If this phonetic handicap can be removed, Latin vacca “cow” will have its fifteen minutes of (etymological) fame.
This reconstruction, dating back to a 1911 paper in an American Festschrift, looks worthy of attention, and if it proves correct, the opaque word bachelor may lose part of its mystery. It remains for me to add that in colleges, before the fifteenth century, the word bachelor was applied to a young man in apprenticeship (!) for the degree in one of the higher colleges, that is, of theology, law, or medicine.