Bill Casselman

Cow Words

Cows Hide in Common English Words like Fee
Long before coins and paper money, Indo-Europeans used cows to measure wealth. This ancient practice lurks in the surprising word history of some English financial terms like fee and pecuniary and in the 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.’

Still today in modern English one’s capital refers to one’s wealth in the form of money or other assets owned.

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 thirteenth-century English 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 stock that was alive or ‘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 das Vieh 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 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 sale-of-house 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.

In Part 2 of Cow Words, which will be posted later this week, I examine the origins of the words cow and moo. Part 3 has even more surprises. For example, vaccine is a cow word and so too is peculiar!

Bill Casselman

May 02, 2016

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