And the Cow 'Flu' Over the 'Immune'

By Rob Kyff

March 21, 2018 3 min read

This winter just "flu" by, didn't it? My own bout began a week ago when invading forces apparently flanked the Maginot line of my flu shot. They've now settled in for a grim siege of my 'Flem'ish fields. (Don't worry. By the time you read this, I'm sure I'll be marching triumphantly through the conquered city of 'Flu'seldorf.)

Speaking of shots, did you know that there's an eye in your "inoculation" and a cow in your "vaccine"?

Surprisingly enough, "inoculation" derives from the Latin word for "eye" ("oculus"), the same root that gives us "ocular" and "oculist."

The ancient Romans thought the round buds on plants or circular markings on animals resembled eyes. So they referred to any eye-like object as an "oculus." In fact, we still use "eye" this way to describe a bud on a potato.

So when the Romans discovered that a bud (oculus) from one plant could be propagated by grafting, they coined the verb "inoculare" to describe this botanical process. During the 1400s, the Latin "inoculare" entered English as "inoculaten," meaning "to graft a scion or bud," and soon the English derivatives "inoculate" and "inoculation" had appeared.

Cue the needle. During the late 1700s, when scientists discovered that introducing a small quantity of an infective agent provided immunity to a disease, they saw similarities to the process of grafting buds onto plants. So they applied the terms "inoculate" and "inoculation" to this medical procedure as well.

At about the same time, the English doctor Edward Jenner discovered that inoculating humans with a small dose of cowpox could prevent smallpox. Because the Latin word for cow was "vacca" and the Latin adjective "vaccinus" meant "of or from cows," the serum derived from cows was dubbed "vaccine," which soon became a general term for any immunity-producing substance.

(The Latin "vacca" also moos in a very different word — "buckaroo." The Spanish word for cowboy, "vaquero," which is derived from the Latin "vacca," was Anglicized by Americans in the West to produce "buckaroo.")

As for "immunization," the Latin word for a "duty, obligation or service performed for the community" was "munus," so the Latin adjective "immunis" evolved, meaning "exempt from public service, untaxed; unburdened." The Latin "immunis" gave rise to the English "immune," meaning "free from a burden," and, by extension, "exempt from contracting a disease."

Most of the time.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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