On bueyes and cows

The last post pointed out that the English word butter traces back through Latin to Greek bouturon, a compound of bous ‘cow’ and turos ‘cheese.’ From the Latin cognate bos came Spanish buey ‘ox.’ The stem of Latin bos was bov-, which gave rise to the Late Latin bovinus that we recognize in bovino/bovine. Much less common is English bovate, a historical term that meant, according to the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, ‘as much land as an ox can plow in a year; an ancient measure of land, of indefinite quantity, but usually estimated at fifteen acres.’ In native English, that measure of land was also called an oxgang, where gang is related to the verb go.

If we head further back in time, both Latin bos and Greek bous had descended from the Indo-European root *gwou-, which was an inclusive term for ‘ox, bull, cow.’ In Greek and Latin (and therefore Romance), the labial element of the gw- prevailed, becoming a b-, but in the Germanic languages the guttural quality of the gw- won out. The surprising result is that Spanish buey has a direct cognate in English cow, even though the pair have ended up looking so dissimilar, with the Spanish word now designating the male of the species and its English counterpart the female.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 12:32:54

    I’m beginning to think that sailing and seamanship have inadvertently created a little linguistic museum. So many nautical terms have their roots exposed, so to speak. You mentioned that gang is related to the verb go, and I thought immediately of gangplank.

    One thing’s for sure. If I ever get my 40 acres and a mule and decide to add a longhorn, that fellow has to be named Ol’ Bueyes!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 12, 2012 @ 13:21:33

      Yes, a gang is a group of people going around together, and a gangplank is a plank for going off a ship. As for your hypothetical longhorn, its name is a novel orthographic take on Ol’ Blue Eyes. What power etymology has to excite the imagination!


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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