At the Wording Desk

Increase your understanding of English vocabulary including "cow" words like vaccine and peculiar.

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. See link at the end of this column.


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 (Greek hypo ‘under’ + Greek derma  ‘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.”

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).

Pecunia
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. What is true is that our English adjective pecuniary pertains to money. Money matters may be called pecuniary matters.

A Latin Joke?

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, “Pecunia 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 the Roman poet Horace:  “O imitatores, servum pecus!” the gist of which is―’O (you) imitators (of my poems) what a servile herd of cows (you are)!’

Peculiar
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 a special legal sense in Roman law. Peculium was your private property. Its adjective, peculiaris, meant therefore ‘pertaining to a person’s own things,’ at first goods and properties, then personal material, personal traits, exceptional talents, in short, things peculiar to one person. The leap from that sense of the word to today’s English sense where peculiar usually means ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ is not great.

Sacred Cow
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.

Now, from this study of cow words, we must re-moo-ve ourselves. I trust, as you read these little notes, that the earth moo-ved for you.

To read Cow Words Part 1, click here.
To read Cow Words Part 2, click here.


Bill Casselman,

May 09, 2016

To email me questions or corrections, return to my home page and find the email link.


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