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MAMMAL NAMES | Bovines, Buachaills, Bulimia & Bob Dylan:

The Maze of Amazing Connections Between the Words Related to Ireland's Cattle

The Irish, English, and scientific names for 'cow' are all related

For millennia, cattle have been central to Irish life, as attested by some of the most impressive features of Ireland’s landscape and literature. Almost 6,000 years ago, early farmers in north Mayo banded together to build a vast complex of stone-walled fields, in order to corral the cattle that had only recently been brought to the island. From that time onwards, cattle assumed an unrivalled importance in Irish life and culture, as so brilliantly encapsulated by one of the greatest works of literature ever produced in Ireland, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, known in English as The Cattle Raid of Cooley. This epic tale from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, which pits the armies of the bull-stealing Queen Medb of Connacht against the semi-divine Ulster hero Cú Chulainn, has been referred to as the ‘Irish Iliad’, and is often regarded as the national epic of Ireland. And these are but a taste of the age-spanning and multi-stranded connections reflected in the Irish, English, and scientific words related to Ireland’s cattle.

To begin our discussion of the names of Ireland’s cattle, we might start where they start out themselves, with the word ‘calf’. This word derives from the Old English cealf, which itself can be traced back to the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word kalbam, and from there all the way to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word gelb(h), from the root word gel, meaning ‘to swell’, in this sense denoting ‘womb’, ‘foetus’, or ‘young of an animal’.

If the English word ‘calf’ brings us all the way back to the womb, though, one of the Irish words for ‘calf’ moves in the opposite direction. Of the two words for ‘calf’ in Irish, gamhain and lao, the latter can, like the English word, be traced back to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word, although this time it loses its particular meaning of youth along the way. Thus, although it can be traced to the Old Irish lóeg and the reconstructed Proto-Celtic laygos, which both mean ‘calf’, its ultimate source is a reconstructed PIE root word that simply means ‘cattle’.

In any case, variants of lao, along with a variety of other Irish words, richly capture the many features and stages of development calves go through. To begin with, when a cow is pregnant, you have the term ionlaos, which is ‘the condition of being in calf’. When the cow gives birth and something unfortunately goes wrong, she might produce a still-born calf, marbhlao, marbh being the Irish word for ‘dead’. But even if the calf survives, it might still have obstacles to overcome. For instance, it could be born with horns that are turned in, which would make it a cúibín, or it could be born tiny, making it a laoidín. However, even a small calf can grow big, and if it makes the most of the time it is a ‘sucking calf’, a pusachán, its fortunes can be on the up when it becomes a yearling, a colann.

In Irish, a sucking calf is known as a pusachán

The fact that this is only a sample of the Irish words relating to calves demonstrates just how close a relationship Irish people have had with them over time, and how much of an interest is taken in their rearing. It is no surprise, then, that there are a number of places in Ireland whose names make reference to calves, and, indeed, recently two of them have even been caught up in quite a storm in a teacup relating to a new song by Bob Dylan.

In this song, I Contain Multitudes, Dylan sings at one point about ‘Bally-na-lee’, but there is debate over whether he is referring to the town of Ballinalee in Co. Longford or Ballylee in Co. Galway. Whatever the truth of this, though, the reference to calves in the names of both of the towns is obvious from their Irish forms, Ballylee coming from Baile Uí Laoigh, which possibly means the ‘Town of the Calves’, and Ballinalee deriving from Béal Átha na Laoigh, the ‘Mouth of the Ford of the Calves’.

So, the importance of calves in Ireland is written all over its languages and locations, but before we leave them there is one last term relating to calves we must look at, as this contains an interesting link to the scientific name for Ireland’s cattle.

In Irish, the word tarbhán can mean ‘bull-calf’ or ‘young bull’, and it derives, unsurprisingly, from the Irish word for ‘bull’, tarbh. The interesting thing here is that tarbh can be traced all the way back, via the Old Irish tarb and the reconstructed Proto-Celtic word tarwos, to a reconstructed PIE root word táwros, which is also the root from which the Latin word for ‘bull’, taurus, is derived. This, then, reveals a linguistic link between the scientific name for Ireland’s cattle , Bos taurus, and the Irish word for ‘bull’.

However, if tracing the Irish word for ‘bull’ back to its root reveals some interesting linguistic shoots, this is as nothing compared to the riotous bloom of linguistic ivy that is brought into the light when we uncover the roots of the English word ‘bull’.

‘Bull’ can be traced back, via the Middle English bule and the Old Norse boli (and possibly the Old English bula), to a reconstructed Proto-Germanic root word bullon, which itself may derive from a reconstructed PIE root word bhel, meaning ‘to blow, swell’. One source adds further to the definition of bhel, stating that it has ‘derivatives referring to various round objects and to the notion of tumescent masculinity’.

It seems the word ‘bull’, then, could be a reference to the fertility of these domesticated beasts, and, as it happens, this is central to the story of Ireland’s national epic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The reason Queen Medb launched her bull-stealing expedition in the first place was that the only thing preventing her wealth from matching that of her husband Ailill was his possession of an incredibly fertile bull called Finnbhennach, and Finnbhennach’s sole equal in Ireland was Donn Cúailnge, the ‘Brown Bull of Cooley’.

Detail of Finnbhennach and Donn Cúailnge from the mosaic mural based on the Táin Bó Cúailnge by Desmond Kinney, off Nassau St. in Dublin

But this is not the only connection that can be made between this root word bhel and Irish mythology. This is because bhel also lies at the root of the English word ‘belly’ and the Irish word bolg, meaning ‘belly’ or ‘bag’, both deriving from bhel’s PIE offspring bhelgh, meaning ‘to swell’. In Irish mythology, the word bolg turns up most famously in the name of one of the ancient races that conquered the island, the Fir Bolg, or ‘men of bags’, a name with interesting origins.

In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, commonly known as the Book of Invasions, the third race to settle Ireland, the people of Nemed, are decimated and forced to flee from the island. One group goes north to become the Tuatha Dé Danann, another group goes to Britain, while the third group makes their way to Greece, where they are enslaved and forced to lug bags of soil or clay, hence their name. The Fir Bolg eventually return to Ireland and settle across the now uninhabited island, only to encounter more misfortune when they are ousted by the Tuatha Dé Danann.

By tracing the English word ‘bull’ to its Proto-Indo-European root word, then, we uncover all kinds of connections, but this is far from where they end, as there are other PIE root words that take the form bhel, one of which means ‘to thrive, bloom’, and is thought to be a variant of the bhel meaning ‘to blow, swell’. This bhel meaning ‘to thrive, bloom’ lies at the root of many English words, including ‘blade’, ‘bloom’, ‘blossom’, and ‘flower’, but also the Irish word for ‘flower’, bláth. It seems, then, that Ireland’s bulls are even more deeply connected to the fields they live in, their English name linking them to the blades of grass and flowers that bloom all around them.

It should be noted, though, that there is another possibility regarding the origins of the English word ‘bull’, which sees its reconstructed Proto-Germanic root word bullon not deriving from the reconstructed PIE root word bhel, but from a Germanic root meaning ‘to roar’. But even if this is the case, we cannot get away from the PIE root word bhel, as this meaning is matched by another form of it which means ‘to sound, roar’, and so is at the root of the English word ‘bellow’, originally used to refer only to the cries of animals, particularly cows and bulls.

Indeed, the evocation of the sounds produced by Ireland’s cattle appears to be strongly interwoven in a number of the main words related to them. Perhaps least surprisingly, this can be seen in the English word ‘low’, deriving from the Old English hlowan, which can be traced to a reconstructed Proto-Germanic word khlo, thought to be imitative of a cow lowing. This may, in turn, derive from a similarly imitative reconstructed PIE root word kele, meaning ‘to shout’, which, incidentally, is also thought to lie at the root of the Middle Irish word cailech, meaning ‘cock’ or ‘rooster’.

But while it may be no surprise that a word like ‘low’ is imitative of the sounds cattle produce, it might be less expected that the same is true of a word seemingly unrelated to sound – the English word ‘cow’. ‘Cow’ can be traced back, via the Middle English cu/qu/kowh and the Old English cu, back to a reconstructed Proto-Germanic root word kwon, which, in turn, is thought to derive from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root word gwou, meaning ‘ox, bull, cow’. But it has been suggested that, in its ultimate sense, gwou may also be imitative of lowing, so it appears that it parallels in this regard the PIE root word su from which many of the words relating to Ireland’s pigs are derived.

A number of the words related to Ireland's cattle derive from the sounds they make

And just as the tracing of the English word ‘bull’ to its PIE root illuminated a vibrant thicket of linguistic connections, so too does the tracing of the word ‘cow’ reveal a many-limbed linguistic tree with numerous interlocking branches. For instance, the PIE root word unites the English, Irish, and scientific names for Ireland’s cattle, lying not only at the root of the English word ‘cow’, but of the Irish and Latin words for 'cow', and bos, the latter of which forms the first part of the species name, Bos taurus.

As gwou lies at the root of the Irish word for ‘cow’, it also, of course, lies at the root of another very common Irish word, bóthar. In modern Irish, bóthar translates as ‘road’, but it literally means ‘cow-path’, derived as it is from the reconstructed Proto-Celtic root bow-itros, which means the same. But this is not the only common Irish word derived from the PIE root gwou, as it is also the ultimate source of the Irish word for ‘boy’, buachaill.

The word buachaill is actually related to the similar-sounding English word ‘bucolic’, and tracing the origins of the latter word serves to illuminate the origins of buachaill also. ‘Bucolic’ is often thought of in terms of just one of its definitions, i.e., ‘pertaining to country life; rural, rustic, countryfied’, but another definition, ‘of or pertaining to herdsmen or shepherds; pastoral’, is closer to its original meaning, as we can see when we trace it to its roots.

‘Bucolic’ comes from the Latin bucolicus, itself derived from the Greek boukolikos which comes from boukolos meaning ‘cowherd, herdsman’, this term a combination of the Greek for ‘cow’, bous (another descendant of gwou), and kolos, which comes from the same root as the Latin verb colere, meaning ‘to till (the ground), cultivate, dwell, inhabit’. Buachaill comes from the same source as boukolos, and, in fact, its original meaning, in Old Irish, was the very same, being ‘cowherd, herdsman’.

The Irish word for 'boy', buachaill, and the English word 'bucolic' come from the same root

So, it seems clear that gwou lies at the root of some of the most common words in the Irish language, but the same can be said of many common words in English, especially those relating to food. These include the word ‘beef’, which in Middle English not only referred to the flesh of cattle but the animals themselves, so one could refer to a number of ‘beeves’ in a field. ‘Butter’ is another, which can be traced via the Old English butere and Latin butyrum, to the Greek boutyron, which possibly comes from the Greek words bous, ‘cow’, and tyros, ‘cheese’, making the original meaning of butter ‘cow-cheese’.

With gwou sitting at the root of English words like ‘beef’ and ‘butter’, it is ironic, then, that it should also be the source of a food-related disease, bulimia. The English word ‘bulimia’, which refers to the eating disorder bulimia nervosa, characterised by binge eating followed by purging, comes from the Greek boulimia, which translates as ‘ravenous hunger’ but literally means ‘ox hunger’, being derived from the Greek words for ‘cow/ox’ and ‘hunger’, bous and limos.

However, words related to Ireland’s cattle are not only connected to diseases but to cures, in the case of an English word which has gained great currency in the last few months – ‘vaccine’. This is a word with fascinating roots, which, like many of the other cattle-related words we have already met, reveals a wealth of hidden connections.

In Latin, two terms could be used to refer to female cattle – bos femina, which ultimately derives from the PIE root word gwou, and vacca, whose origin is unclear. In any case, vacca lies at the root of the word ‘vaccine’, via the form vaccinus, meaning ‘pertaining to a cow’. But just how cows came to be associated with a form of disease prevention is an interesting story, which revolves around one of those great scourges of past times – smallpox.

Up until the late eighteenth century, the only way to treat smallpox was by deliberately infecting healthy patients with the milder form of the disease, which had a fatality rate of two per cent or less, to provide immunity against the far more virulent strain that killed around 30 per cent of the people who contracted it. However, in the 1790s, the English physician and scientist, Edward Jenner, building on the earlier work and observations of others, scientifically proved that those who contracted cowpox, a disease similar to smallpox but far milder in its effects, gained immunity from the more deadly disease.

There is one last thing about Jenner’s work that should be noted, though, as it is something that reveals one final link in the amazing maze of connections we have unearthed in our exploration of the words related to Ireland’s cattle. At the centre of Jenner’s investigations was a milkmaid named Sarah and a cow who, as chance would have it, was named Blossom.


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