Let’s talk about horses and cows, starting, naturally, with the hippopotamus.

The word hippopotamus, as you may have heard, literally means “river horse” in Greek: hippos (horse) + potamos (river). That word potamos is the basis of the name Mesopotamia, the region between the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. I went looking for the horsiest-looking hippo I could find on the Internet, and here it is:

That Greek word hippos hasn’t given rise to many other words in English. There is hippodrome, meaning an arena for horse-racing and other horsey activities. And there is the seahorse-shaped part of the brain known as the hippocampus. Any other hippo- related words are even more obscure.

The proto-Indo-European word that became hippos in Greek became equus in Latin. Equus, too, has not had a lot of impact on English. We have the rather specialized equestrian and equine, but I don’t know of any other equus-derived words in English, unless you count Latin taxonomy names like equus caballus (horse) equus asinus (donkey), and equus zebra (zebra).

Even though a lot of our vocabulary comes from Greek and Latin, English, of course, is a Germanic language, not a Romance language. So we needn’t be surprised that a word like equus hasn’t strongly influenced our language. What’s more surprising is the near-absence of equus-derived words in the big Romance languages. Here are the words for horse and horseman in French, Spanish, and Italian:

  • French: cheval, chevalier
  • Spanish: caballo, caballero
  • Italian: cavallo, cavaliere

Where did these words come from? They come from the Vulgar Latin caballus, a slangy word meaning “nag,” or “packhorse.” The toga-wearing elite had their equōs. The pants-wearing peasants of the late empire had caballōs.

Something similar happened with tête, the French word for “head.” It doesn’t derive from the schoolbook Latin caput, but from the slangier testa, meaning “pot” or “jug.”

Quick side-note: Kopf, the German word for “head,” is closely related to the word for “cup” or “drinking vessel,” possibly related to the English “cup.” But I’m not sure how the words are related: did one derive from the other? Did both derive from an earlier word? If you have some expertise in German, I’d love to hear from you.

Ok, to return to the caballus-derived words. The Norman French effectively introduced horseback fighting to England when they conquered the island in 1066 AD. So it will come as no surprise that our more familiar Latinate words for horsemanship come via Norman French (cheval, chevalier, etc) and not directly from classical Latin (equus). The Brits had horses long before the Norman French showed up, so the word cheval never made any headway against the native word horse. But many of our words related to riding a horse into battle do come from the Romance languages. The codes of knighthood are known as chivalry. Horse-mounted soldiers are cavalry. (Remembering this etymology will help you avoid the mistake of referring to horse soldiers as Calvary or referring to the hill where Jesus was crucified as cavalry.) A parade of horses and horse-drawn carriages is a cavalcade. An armed horseman—or a supporter of King Charles I against the Puritans—is a cavalier. These days, cavalier is more frequently used as an adjective than as a noun. To be cavalier is to be “marked by or given to offhand and often disdainful dismissal of important matters,” this being the reputation of the cavaliers of the seventeenth century, especially as compared to their Puritan opponents.

In Spanish, caballero expanded to mean “gentleman.” A big Mexican  landowner might be known as a caballero. He might employ vaqueros—literally, “cowboys.” Vaquero derives from the Spanish vaca, which derives from the Latin vacca, meaning “cow.” (When I was in high school, a dashing young man from Vacaville, California moved to town. A Californian! We may have been less star-struck if we had known Vacaville literally meant cow-town.) 

That Latin word vacca, by the way, is the source of our word vaccine. Up to the nineteenth century, smallpox was a major cause of death, disfigurement, and blindness. But milkmaids who had contracted the much less virulent disease of cowpox (vaccinia) were safe from smallpox. Around 1800, the scientist Edward Jenner used matter from fresh cowpox lesions to inoculate a young boy. The inoculation worked, and Jenner chose the name vaccination for the procedure of injecting vaccinia to prevent smallpox.

The word buckaroo is a corruption of vaquero. If you pronounce that initial v of vaquero as a b, (the way a native speaker would) and  move the stress from the second syllable to the first, it’s not hard to see how one gets from vaquero to buckaroo

Quite a few cowboy-adjacent English words are borrowings or corruptions of Spanish words used by vaqueros. These include remudachaps (from chaparreras, leather overalls to protect a rider from the chapparal), hackamore (from jaquima), rodeo, lasso, lariat, mustang, and possibly dogie (from dogal, the lariat by which a vaquero might lead a motherless calf).

But my favorite cowboy corruption of vaquero Spanish (besides buckaroo) is the “ten-gallon hat.” Here is Michael Quinion’s explanation from his fun little book, Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds:

Galón is braid…a sombrero galoneado was a wide-brimmed hat with braid on it. The word was borrowed into English and converted by folk etymology into gallon, so that people referred to a gallon hat. (Since galón in Spanish can also mean the liquid measure gallon, you may feel the confusion was inevitable or at least excusable).

As cowboy hats got bigger—in cowboy movies if not among working cowboys—the gallon hat came to be jokingly known as the ten-gallon hat.

We’ll wrap up with the Maverick family. Samuel Maverick was a nineteenth-century Texas politician and rancher who refused to brand his cattle. Soon, any unbranded calf found on the Western range came to be known as a maverick. Not long after that, the word maverick came to mean a person who has a strong independent, unconventional, individualist streak—whether as a reference to unattached calves out doing their on thing on the Western plains, or as a reference to the unconventional rancher Maverick isn’t altogether clear. One suspects both possibilities factor into the development of the word.

The etymonline.com entry for maverick includes an interesting family note: Maury Maverick, the grandson of Samuel Maverick, was a US Congressman in the 1930s and 40s. A liberal politician who didn’t toe the (Democratic) party line, he was a bit of a maverick himself, and not just in name. He was also the originator of the word gobbledegook, which he said was an imitation of a turkey’s gobble. As chairman of the US Smaller War Plants Corporation, he wrote a memo banning “gobbledegook language.” “Anyone using the words activation or implementation will be shot,” he wrote. Our tolerance for gobbledegook has grown considerably in the last eighty years, if activation and implementation  qualified as gobbledegook in 1944.

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