Thursday, November 5, 2009

Don't you just love words!

Did any of you get a flu shot? A vaccine? Did you get the swine flu vaccine? If so, you might be interested to know that you received, in a manner of speaking, a cow shot! How so, you ask?

The word vaccine comes from the Latin word "vacca" meaning, you guessed it, cow! Long ago, like three hundred years ago, a Dr. Jenner noticed that milkmaids were immune from small pox but getting cowpox, so, for some strange reason, he used the pus (yuck) from a milkmaid's cowpox blister to inject into a child who became immune to small pox. He called his creation a "vaccine virus". And, there you have another reason to thank a cow the next time you see one!

You can find this word information and other word curiosities on line at or or If you poke around a little, you'll find that "seminary" comes from the Latin root "semen", yep, that semen! Men constitute the "seed" that is planted to form a priest. (Notice that I used the word "form." Rectors resist the word "train" since men are "called" to become priests!)

If you look around the Internet sites some more, you'll see that the word "varsity" actually comes from the abbreviated form of "university", that is, "'versity" (with an apostrophe) and over the years 'versity came to be varsity.

"Assassin" has an interesting background (or etymology). It seems an Arab bandit, Hasan Sabah, and his followers liked to kill public officials, including priests! Before the killers left to perform their dastardly deeds, these men often smoked hashish to get their minds in an appropriate killing place. They became known as "hashishiyun", the men who smoked, ate or otherwise ingested large amounts of hash. We know these men as assassins.

I like to remind my friends from India that much of our language can be traced to their country. Linguists call the original language "Proto-Indo European". For example, we can understand words like "juggernaut" if we understand India. In this wonderful and exotic country, many Hindus celebrate the feats of Jagannath", the Lord of the World, aka Krishna and Vishnu. In any event, during their festival, some of the believers place a huge statue of Jagannath on a movable cart and parade it through the town. Occasionally, the very devout threw themselves under the cart in self-sacrifice (no doubt the ones who had ingested a little hash). The cart didn't stop and the unstoppable force came to be known in the West as a juggernaut!

Not all words have such negative origins. If you look up the etymology of the word "enthusiasm", you will fall in love with this term that comes from the Greek and means "with God". It comes from the prefix "en" (with) and "theos" (God). And so, we rightly call the enthusiastic people we know the ones those who are with God!

I find all of this fascinating and revealing. A better understanding of the history of words helps us understand better what we are saying. It gives us a deeper understanding and richer. Don't you just love words!

1 comment:

  1. Etymology! What an interesting subject. It lets you on the long history that a mere word has had. The power of words!
    Will look out for similar posts.