search this site
Cow words #3: Vaccine & Pecuniary
Vaccine appears first in English as an adjective in 1798, perhaps coined by Doctor Edward Jenner, inventor of vaccination. Jenner seems to have adapted it from the eighteenth-century medical name for cow-pox, variolae vaccinae where vaccinus is a Late Latin adjective ‘pertaining to cows’ from Latin vacca ‘cow.’ In last week’s column I wrote extensively about the etymology of vacca.
Variola appears in English pathology texts by 1771 as the medical Latin name for smallpox. Variolae vaccinae is cow-pox. Variola means pustule, that which causes the ‘pock’ marks of ‘pox.’ Variola is a Late Latin diminutive form of varius, a Latin adjective meaning spotted and ‘of several colours.’
Soon after its adjectival debut, the word vaccine also becomes a noun (1803) meaning ‘the matter used in vaccination’ and injected into humans by means of a hypodermic needle (hypo Greek ‘under’ + derma Greek ‘skin.’
By 1803 the verb vaccinate has poked its way into English medical parlance. Its prime and sensuous meaning was “to inoculate a person with a small sample of the virus of cow-pox as a protection against smallpox.”
For the story of how Edward Jenner happened upon vaccination technique, visit Charles Hodgson’s Podictionary by clicking the link below. It is a fascinating medical story well-told.
Early 19th-century caricature of infant vaccination
Pecu & Pecus
We now tiptoe to another stall in the cowshed of words to look at English derivatives of two Latin cow words: pecu and pecus, both meaning ‘flock (of sheep) or herd (of cattle).
A Latin word for money, pecunia, evolved from pecus. Some believe that cattle herds represented a very early form of Roman wealth. Others go farther to posit that Roman coins first represented “tokens” for cattle traded. I can find not a jot or tittle of proof for this in any extant Latin text. Perhaps a reader can email me such a citation? What is true is that our English adjective pecuniary pertains to money. Money matters may be called pecuniary matters.
An oft-quoted bit of Latin mirth was spoken by the Roman emperor Vespasian when he was told that the treasury of the state was emptying quickly. In order to raise new sources of money, Vespasian ordered a tax on public urinals. Some of the Roman senators were aghast. How vulgar to demean the majesty of Rome by taxing urination! Vespasian listened calmly to the senatorial splutterings of outrage and then said simply, “Pecuna non olet.” ‘The money doesn’t smell.’ How widespread was the emperor’s little joke? Well, even today, the literary word for ‘street urinal’ in French is la vespasienne. The commoner term is pissoir.
What a Servile Herd!
The best known Latin phrase containing the word pecus is a tag from a poem (Horace, Epistles 1, xix, 1) in the form of a letter written by theRoman poet Horace: “O imitatores, servum pecus!” the gist of which is―‘O (you) imitators (of my poems, what a ) slavish herd of cows (you are)!’
Peculiar also harks back to pecu Latin ‘herd.’ Nowadays we possess one extant text of actual Roman etymology, an error-filled but invaluable book entitled De Lingua Latina (‘Concerning the Latin Language’) by Varro. It states that in early Latin peculium referred to a person’s private wealth as expressed in herds of livestock. By the time of the Roman empire, peculium had developed several special legal senses in Roman law. Peculium was your private property. Its adjective, peculiaris, meant therefore ‘pertaining to a goods and properties, then personal material, personal traits, exceptional talents, in short, anything peculiar to one person. The leap from that meaning of the word to today’s English sense where peculiar usually means ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ is not great.
The phrase ‘sacred cow’ first appears in English in a book titled Beast & Man in India written by John Lockwood Kipling, father of a much more famous son, the English author Rudyard Kipling. It refers to the reverence in which Hindus hold the cow and Muslims don’t.
This is an Indian anti-Muslim poster showing an evil, pig-headed divinity hoisting a sword to slaughter a sacred cow.
And so, with this bouoctony averted, we shall take our leave. Bouoctony (pronounced boo-OC-tuny) is a Greek word referring to the ceremonial slaughter of cows. Seek it not in the staid pages of dictionaries, for I made it up out of two good, solid Greek roots, namely bou- Greek ‘cow’ + octonia ‘slaughter, killing.’
© 2012 copyright William Gordon Casselman
Any comments, additional word lore or book orders?
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you enjoyed this column,
please tell your word-loving friends about my site
and ask them to visit it.
Reviews of my Book
Click bookcover for preview
A Great New Review of My Latest Book!
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.”
I invite you to tour my site and select from the hundreds of word stories here.
To begin, click on the Word List banner below.
Then perhaps browse the site map with its links to every page of my website.
2007 - Bill Casselman's latest publication
is an essay in a new book entitled
Barry Callaghan: Essays on his Works
in the Writers Series published by Guernica Editions
“Bill Casselman…fascinating website on books and words”
Brian Sibley, BBC broadcaster, author of the bestseller Shadowlands, about C.S. Lewis’ love affair with Joy D.