Issue 183, page 1

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In Britain, the word vet is an abbreviation for veterinarian or veterinary surgeon but in the U.S. it also means "ex-serviceman", from veteran. Could there possibly be a connection between these two kinds of vet? Dipping into the dictionary reveals that veterinarian comes from a Latin word for "cattle" and veteran from another Latin word meaning "old". So there would seem to be no link, but wait. Let's go back a little further in time...

an old soldierAbout 4,000 years ago a group of tribes from southern Russia expanded into Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Northern India, taking their language with them. The branch which settled in India called itself arya (Sanskrit for "noble" or "hospitable"), a name which is related to Iran. For a while, the word Aryan was used to describe this language-group but after Hitler and the Nazis distorted its meaning, linguists settled upon the term Indo-European. In reconstructing the prehistoric Indo-European language, linguists have deduced that its word for "year" was *wet-. This root word gave Latin vetus meaning "old" (i.e. "yeared", compare seasoned) and from vetus we get veteran. Literally meaning "old man", veteran has always implied "old soldier" and thus, in the U.S., it has acquired the additional meaning of "ex-serviceman". 

In a way, therefore, the expression a seasoned veteran is redundant: to become a veteran one must have lasted at least four seasons. Anything which is inveterate has lasted many years; it comes from the Latin inveterare, "to become, or to make, old". For reasons we cannot fathom, inveterate never seems to qualify anything pleasant. We might hear of an inveterate liar, inveterate thief or an inveterate scoundrel but never of an inveterate philanthropist. 

Latin made further use of *wet- in veterina, one of its words for "cattle". In this case, the vet- may have implied either "elderly" (many years) or, more probably, "fully grown" (more than one year). Veterina gave us veterinarian, veterinary and the verb to vet, meaning "to examine carefully and critically". We now hear of people being vetted before being allowed access to sensitive or confidential material but, originally, vetting referred to horses being examined by a veterinarian before a aurochs (yes, that is the singular)

According to our table of consonant shifts (Spotlight, Issue 182), an English descendant of *wet- should take the form weth-, and so it does: a wether is a fully grown sheep (i.e. it is more than a year old). These days it is most frequently encountered in the combination bellwether - a sheep (with a bell around its neck) which is used to lead a flock to slaughter. Sometimes financial commentators speak of bellwether stocks (or corporations), which are stocks (or corporations) that serve as indicators of market trends. It is likely that this departure from the original meaning arose out of ignorance of the word wether and confusion with weather-vane.

Natural languages develop with scant regard to logic or consistency, so it comes as no surprise to find that Latin also employed *wet- in the sense of "less than a year old". Vetulus (or vitulus) meant "calf" (literally "yearling"), a word which English has inherited as veal.

Just in passing...

We think that the Latin verb inveterare, "to become, or to make, old", has been unfairly neglected. Just think how useful an English version could be...

Sense one, "to become old":

 "Boy, reality TV shows have really inveterated!"

Sense two, "to age, to make old":

 "I declare, those mischievous children are causing my premature inveteration!"

In case you were wondering...

  • An initial asterisk (i.e. *wet-) indicates that the word is hypothetical. That is, no written example of wet- has ever been found. 

  • The final hyphen means that *wet- is a word-stem and not a complete word. 

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2003 TIERE
Last Updated 06/28/03 11:41 AM