Cow Words Part # 1
Next week we examine the origins of the words cow and moo. But today we shout “co, boss!” to some hidden cows. Long before coins and paper money, Indo-Europeans used cows to measure wealth. This ancient practice lurks in the history of some English financial words like fee and pecuniary and in the surprising, original meaning of the word cattle.
We have only spelled it cattle since the early eighteenth century. It began as Late Latin capitale ‘principal sum of money,’ hence ‘property’ and ‘wealth.’ A trip through Provençal and Old French saw the Latin capitale shortened and transformed into captal and catel and then in northern French we first see the Parisian form chatel. In the Anglo-French of the legal language this appeared in the familiar phrase “goods and chattels.” In the Middle Ages catel was ‘movable goods owned’ and the feudal system saw catel as ‘beast held in possession’ that is as ‘live stock,’ hence cows and bulls became the chief catels.
To modern English speakers, a fee is a fixed sum charged and ― it is fondly to be hoped ― paid. But to King Alfred writing out his laws about 900 CE, feoh meant, in its basic sense, ‘cattle owned.’ Fee has lost that meaning of livestock in English but its modern German cognate dasVieh still means livestock and is an active component in word formation, e.g. der Viehmarkt ‘cattle market.’ To the Vikings who spoke Old Norse, their cognate word fé had three common meanings: property, money and cattle.
Even in King Alfred’s time, fee came to mean movable goods, and a little later, that which bought movable goods, namely, money. The semantic trajectory of the word fee through history is remarkably similar to that of the word cattle.
In Fee Simple
In feudal law, a fee was an inherited estate in land and/or that land granted by the lord owner to his vassal for service performed for the lord. The fee often referred directly to the land itself. That use survives in real estate law and contracts in Great Britain and North America. If you own your home and the property on which it sits you may indeed hold your land ‘in fee simple.’ In Canadian common law, this form of land tenure is as close as one can get to absolute ownership — thus diminishing any fears of foreclosure or other housing losses.
Fee simple permits the tenant to sell or to convey by will or transfer to the tenant's heir upon death without a will. In modern law, almost all land is held in fee simple.
Pecuniary means ‘consisting of or relating to money.’ The word fee has a cognate in Latin pecu which to the Romans meant ‘flock, herd or cattle.’ One measure of ancient wealth was the number of domesticated animals one owned. In classical Latin the value of one’s animal herds was one’s pecunia. Originally meaning ‘cattle wealth’ pecunia expanded its meanings to include money, the tokens that represented the value of one’s cattle herd. Pecuniarius was a classical Latin adjective that meant ‘of or relating to money.’ The word entered English after the Norman Conquest of 1066 CE and soon was written down in the Anglo-Norman form of pecunier. But eventually the Latin form and spelling won out. Pecunier disappeared from English and pecuniary flourished.
A Roman farmer and his one cow from a 1st century CE relief
But Were Cattle Ever A Roman Sign of Wealth?
There is one small fly in the ointment of this ‘cattle as Roman farm wealth’ theory. The reader must remember that there was not plenty of good cattle-grazing land near Rome. Well south of ancient Rome lay the fertile green fields of Campania. But the warm climate of southern and central Italy made keeping milk fresh on the way to market a very tricky and often failed procedure. Also, with their stern ‘military-peasant’ cast-of-mind, the ancient Romans considered milk to be baby food and Roman men generally only drank milk when they were in sick bed. Yes, the Romans made cheese but most of it was used to feed soldiers. Olive oil was available to replace butter. So where, exactly, in Italy, did all this concept of ‘cattle as essential wealth’ become embedded in the Latin language? I suggest the Romans inherited the words along with their twin concepts (cow=money) from Indo-European forebears who lived thousands of years earlier somewhere in Asia where green fields made the domestication of cattle a lucrative way to earn a living and feed a family. These words came into Latin from some Indo-European ancestor of Latin, and they came with cow-wealth already embedded in their verbal meanings.
© 2012 copyrightWilliam Gordon Casselman
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October 26, 2011
Welcome to the Enchanted Forest
By WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos. )
Jenni French of San Fancisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word esssays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my new book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
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