English denies its prime animal species a name, showing the injustice of the vernacular.
Mammalogists have no common or vernacular name for one of the most important animal species on Earth, Bos taurus. Why have we failed to name a species we humans ourselves created more than five thousand years ago?
If anyone thinks we are making a problem of a straw man, please try any biological dictionary or faunal list. Bos taurus = . . . ? How does that scientific name translate in English?
Incredibly to a Martian, biologists have never got around to christening one of the most familiar of mammals. Bos taurus has a global population in the order of a billion and a vast academic and semi-popular literature. Yet our most precise ways of referring to a member of this species are vague, ambiguous, oblique, obtuse, cryptic, evasive and archaic: cow, head of cattle, ox, beast, beef.
Other bovines do have the expected vernacular names at species level. All wild species have common names in English, such as tamaraw and Cape buffalo. So do all other domesticated members of the genus Bos, e.g. gaur (Bos gaurus), banteng (Bos javanicus), wild yak (Bos mutus) and domestic yak (Bos grunniens). Even the extinct ancestor of Bos taurus, namely Bos primigenius, has an exclusive name: aurochs. The kouprey (Bos sauveli) has a vernacular name as befits the national animal of Cambodia, even though its validity as a species has never been established. And certain antelopes superficially resembling Bos have names to the point of redundancy, e.g. blue wildebeest = brindled gnu (Connochaetes taurinus) and black wildebeest = white-tailed gnu (Connochaetes gnou).
But no such birthright for Bos taurus, the most prominent of all bovine species scientifically and economically. It seems absurd that geneticists have identified all 22,000 genes of this species, in an effort that took five years and cost US$53 million, but still have no way of identifying in plain English just which species this genome refers to. We’ve simply never given Bos taurus a specific name in English, and other languages seem similarly remiss. For example, the national animal of Spain is ‘el toro’, the bull, leaving patriotic Spaniards wondering whether ‘la vaca’, the cow of the same species, is included in the honour. ‘Toro’ is from the Latin ‘taurus’, whereas ‘vaca’ is from the Latin ‘bos’. So, taken literally, the Spanish national animal is only the male.
‘Cow’ falls short as a name because it refers to the female only, and extends to animals as remote as hippopotami, elephants and even whales. ‘Cattle’ is restricted to the plural and can apply to any and all members of the genus Bos; besides, it’s not even a good genus-name because it’s derived from the same root as ‘chattel’ in describing livestock as property. Until the nineteenth century, cattle included other farmed species such as sheep and pig.
Although scientific authors have recently resorted to ‘taurine cattle’ for Bos taurus, this remains inept for two reasons. Firstly, it can’t be used in the singular. Secondly, while ‘taurus’ is indeed the specific epithet in the scientific name, it means only the male in the original Latin; so it errs in the same way as ‘ox’ does, unnecessarily confusing genders in what should simply be the name of a species. As for ‘ox’, that is used inconsistently anyway. Strictly ‘ox’ means castrated male used for draft purposes but loosely it means the whole species or even the whole genus; besides, its plural, ‘oxen’, is archaic. Qualifying the species name as ‘common ox’ hardly solves the problem. ‘Beast’ is hopelessly vague, ambiguous, and slurred. Beef is ambiguous except in the archaic plural ‘beeves’.
Whew. Can any reader imagine a bigger pile of b___s___ when all that was needed was a common name?
The naming problem starts at genus level: Bos lacks any translation in English. This is remarkable because after all ‘bos’ is simply the Latin word for the species as preserved in the Spanish ‘vaca’, Italian ‘vacca’ and French ‘vache’. So the solution to this whole problem of naming seems obvious.
The English name for the genus, which we invent here for the first time, is ‘bost‘.
So, all members of Bos, e.g. gaur, banteng, aurochs and kouprey, would be bosts, i.e. species of bost, in a generic sense.
Dear readers, what would ‘bost’ leave to be desired as a new vernacular name at generic level? It’s concise, easy to pronounce, and in line with the Latin root. It’s similar to the scientific genus name Bos and its derivatives ‘bovid’ and ‘bovine’. It solves the vagueness of ‘beast’ (from the Latin ‘bestia’, originally related to the Latin ‘bos’). Furthermore, ‘bost’ is fully available because it has not, as far as we know, been used for any other genus of animals.
And if bost will do the job at genus level, inventing an appropriate specific name in the same vernacular seems easy: European bost.
There it is, problem fixed. We simply propose that an appropriate English name for Bos taurus is ‘European bost’.
Did it really need to take one and a half millennia of English usage and our expedition to the Bio-edge to come up with something so obvious?
Although Bos indicus is already called the zebu, a new alternative name, ‘Indian bost’, may have the advantage in describing the many breeds derived from the extensive hybridisation of Bos taurus with Bos indicus. These breeds can now more consistently be referred to as ‘European x Indian bost’.
At last, the biological dictionary will be able to tell us that Bos taurus = European bost. And, better late than never, ‘bostboys’ will surely sound beefier than ‘cowboys’.
But we’ll be surprised if our new name sticks beyond scientific papers. This is because our failure to name Bos taurus may have been no accident. Instead, it may have deep roots in the subconscious dishonesty, irreverence and denial that make us all human. Maybe we actually don’t want a name for a species we regarded as walking wealth in traditional pastoralism, and continue to treat as stuff today. A real name might remind us of our bestiality.
‘Cow’ suitably disempowers a massive and ancestrally formidable species that we now breed as a mere resource rather than a living being. No bull except on our terms: castration produces a ‘steer’ which we then nicely emasculate further as the mere ‘cow’ in ‘cowboy’. The terminology is absurd but explained by our commodification of this species above all other animals.
Let’s face it: Bos taurus is our meat-and-milk zombie and that suits the lay person just fine. Any insistence on a name is likely to be seen as pedantic – perhaps even in scientific disciplines, which have so far proved unable to resist the lay mentality.
Without getting too shrill about zombiedom and animal rights, we’ve noticed other ironies of identity among bovines. We offer the European bison (Bison bonasus), kouprey and banteng as examples.
The bison is regarded as a pride of the European fauna, an animal fit for kings. And, to give us our due, humans did spare it from extinction, if only just. But in this case our denial takes a different form: the rightful habitat of the species. We pretend that this is a forest bovine, whereas its real home was more likely the treeless grasslands that we have made our (nameless but nicely domesticated) European bost to usurp. So the European bison, even if it continues to remain nominally extant, is unlikely ever to be granted the recognition that it belongs in grassland – let alone being restored to a dedicated bison reserve in this agriculturally valuable biome. Our jealousy would be too great for that, so we prefer to keep it in another kind of zombiedom. We’ll continue to prop up the European bison in unsuitable wooded areas by means of provisioning in winter. And in so doing we’ll have reduced our primeval symbol to another ‘living dead’, not confined to a museum or zoo but dependent on artificial feeding.
Another bost that – unlike the European bison – ostensibly didn’t dodge the bullet of extinction is the kouprey of Indochina. A black and white photo is one of the few clear portraits available, making this species intangible and almost mystical. Its identity is obscure because the kouprey may not have been a real species in the first place. It’s possible that this was a complex feral hybrid, imagined – in a region of political turmoil – into the status of an elusive primeval species even as it lost its identity by gradual interbreeding with surrounding bosts. After all, Indochina has been so trammelled by humanity that what is truly primeval became academic thousands of years ago.
If readers doubt that feral species can be imagined into wild species, consider the case of the banteng. A population introduced to the Cobourg Peninsula in northern Australia is now regarded as vital for the conservation of this species in its wild form, despite the fact that the individuals introduced came from Bali, where all populations of the banteng are fully domesticated. There is a case to be made for the preservation of the banteng in Australia; but let’s not confuse ‘feral’ with ‘ancestral’. If the remaining truly wild populations in southeast Asia are lost, the species will have become extinct in its wild form, regardless of the persistence of the species in Australia.
So, let’s come back to the kouprey. If the yeti and sasquatch are cryptozoological and the thylacine, quagga and bloubok are extinct but scientifically verified species, then the kouprey falls somewhere between. Unfortunately we may never know exactly what the kouprey was. Make up your own minds after watching this haunting video. As even this glimpse fades from the electronic record, the name of the kouprey will dangle ever less meaningfully.
Of two congeners, we’ve denied a specific vernacular name to the one that looms millions of times larger in our lives than does the one with the name. What is this foible of the human mind? Within Bos, how can we allocate an unmistakable name to a species that we can’t be sure ever really existed in the first place, yet deny a name to the most important species? It’s almost as if our denial of rightful identity to one species has been shadowed by the foisting of false identity on another species as part of some inescapable mental justice.
Further aspects of this denial of identity are revealed by the etymology of ‘cow’ and ‘cattle’.
The word ‘cow’ is linked via the Germanic ‘kuh’ (plural ‘kühe’) to the English word ‘kin’ – as in ‘kith and kin’ – in a subtle, almost sinister way. To state it baldly: ‘cows’ are historically an extension of our own human identity. This is evident in the shift in meanings that took place from ‘kin’, ‘kind’, and ‘kind’ (German for child) to ‘kine’ (Old English for cows in plural) and ‘cow’. So ‘cow’ is related to all three meanings of ‘kind’: the noun meaning type or sort, the adjective referring to favourable treatment (one of us as opposed to one of them), and the noun meaning child.
What emerges is that ‘kin’ has the same verbal root as ‘cow’; and therefore, in one way, the English language links our livestock with our children. Bos taurus may be our kin rather than being identified as an animal species in its own right. But it is not our kith, for this is a kinship of servitude as opposed to kindness. Inasmuch as we’ve recognised that the European bost has a life, we’ve relegated it to an exploited family member, a slave denied rights or dignity. At best, as the national animal of Spain, a condemned gladiator.
By contrast, ‘cattle’ has its verbal roots in ‘chattel’, meaning moveable possession, and ‘capital’. This tells us that Bos taurus is self-shifting property, co-opted from the zoological realm into the legal estate, a resource rather than a species.
So, whether via kin or via chattel, Bos taurus has been cheated of its identity – and a vernacular name – as part of its rise to a purely economic value.
A relevant aside is that the word ‘vernacular’ itself originates in a tradition of treating humans as property. This is because the Latin ‘verna’ originally meant ‘born slave’ in the Roman empire. So our verbal treatment of Bos taurus parallels to some extent the treatment of human slaves in the lingua franca from which English is partly derived, and again hints at the futility of any attempt to give Bos taurus a precise name acceptable to the lay mentality. Interestingly, with English having replaced Latin as the modern lingua franca, the word ‘vernacular’ has come full circle. Today ‘vernacular’ refers to a mother tongue; yet many, perhaps most, English-speakers are not born to English, but learn it after their true vernacular.
Similar etymological bias can be found in Zulu, the language of Bantu pastoralists traditionally dependent on sanga breeds, i.e. hybrids of Bos taurus x indicus. Originally hunted in Zululand before the advent of domestic livestock was the eland, a bovid revered for its fatty meat by the Khoisan hunter-gatherers whom the Zulus displaced. The Zulu for eland, ‘impofu’ (plural ‘izimpofu’), may seem to be simply a vernacular species-name. However, when applied as an adjective, ‘-mpofu’ means ‘poor’ or ‘indigent’. The link between the eland and the concept of poverty is evident. The Zulus, to whom livestock were wealth, saw this largest of wild antelopes as merely a poor version of cattle, i.e. the food hunted by abject people who lacked the means of milk-production.
We can’t be sure which came first linguistically, the adjective ‘-mpofu’ (poor, or like an eland) or the noun ‘impofu’ (eland, or that which is poor). Possibly the adjective was original and the eland was named simply for its status as a poor version of the bost herded by the Zulus.
It seems, then, that to the Zulus the wild eland was unworthy of a name for its own sake – notwithstanding the depiction of this species in cave art by the former occupiers of Zululand with a reverent attention to detail that was zoologically accurate. The eland was merely labeled in the Zulu vernacular by its value, or lack thereof. And even the common name in English, in its way, shows a disregard for precise identity. This is because the initial Dutch and French colonists in South Africa gave the eland the same name as the moose, an animal so unrelated that it belongs to a different Family.
This history may remind us that both Latin and English have been linguae francae in which the concept of the ‘vernacular’ is ambivalent. However, there is a difference. This is that writers of English, the language of science, have a duty to create a suitable vernacular name for Bos taurus.
Now that we’ve established a satisfactory common name in European bost, biologists at least have no further excuse. Perhaps we don’t aspire to a higher consciousness in our relationship with Nature, or wish to stick up for the rights of our domestic animals to respectful and humane treatment. Each to their own. But simply in our role as scientists studying Bos taurus, if we continue to call this species the cow, the ox, cattle, or even taurine cattle, then that will start to look desultory. Perhaps even dysfunctional.
And if we protest that old habits die too hard, which species will then seem to be in a state of zombiedom?
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1 Bubalus mindorensis
2 Syncerus caffer
3 the English plural of which is aurochses
4 completed in 2009
5 Although bisons belong to a different genus, they can interbreed with Bos taurus, so that even bison could arguably be called ‘cattle’ today; indeed, the hybridisation in the case of the American bison (Bison bison) has been so extensive that it is unclear whether that species survives in pure form.
6 In German and Dutch, names for Bos include ‘rind’ and ‘rund’, which would be ambiguous or unpronounceable if anglicised.
7 A possible objection is that neither Bos taurus nor its ancestor Bos primigenius is strictly European, Bos primigenius primigenius having ostensibly been domesticated in Turkey about 10,500 years ago, and Bos primigenius originally extending as far east as China. However, a) the reproductive differentiation of Bos taurus from domestic Bos primigenius occurred in Europe, as shown by several Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian breeds which remain remarkably similar to the aurochs, b) a different species was created by domestication on the Indian subcontinent (namely Bos indicus) from the same ancestral species (Bos primigenius namadicus), and c) it has not been established that the aurochs was separately domesticated in east Asia despite certain genetic differences between European and east Asian breeds today. The name ‘Eurasian bost’ for Bos taurus would not distinguish this species from any other bost, because all species of bosts are Eurasian.
8 or ‘indicine cattle’, which abuses the Latin adjective for ‘Indian’ in a misguided attempt to conform with ‘taurine’
9 possibly the original habitat of the aurochs rather than the European bison
10 I.e. of gaur, banteng and zebu, all of which occurred in the same area. In most of the global range of wild bovines, sympatry was limited and only one species occurred per habitat; in the range of the kouprey, at least three species of bosts, wild and domestic, were sympatric together with wild and domestic water buffaloes (Bubalus arnee and Bubalus bubalis). Simply on the basis of biogeography, then, we must doubt the validity of the kouprey as a wild species as opposed to a feral hybrid.
11 Notwithstanding the facts that a) these ‘Bali cattle’ retain a colouration as uniform among individuals as in any wild species of bost, and b) ancestral and domesticated forms of banteng have not earned different species-names.
12 Even today, African pastoralists sometimes arrange their dwellings in such a way that the livestock spend the night in the safe centre of the homestead or kraal.
13 The idea of a kinship of servitude is ironically rooted in the word ‘vernacular’ itself, which refers to a native language today but originated in the Latin ‘vernus’ (male) or ‘verna’ (female), meaning person native to slavery as opposed to being enslaved by importation. Many slaves were captured at the expanding frontier but any child born into servitude would grow up knowing only Latin, not the native language of his or her parents. Hence arose the Latin adjective ‘vernaculus’, from which the English ‘vernacular’ is derived.
14 Latin had no word for ‘race’, presumably because the Romans saw other ethnic and linguistic groups as mere livestock for slavery. Persons enslaved by the Romans may have been Celt, Moor, Nubian, Nilote or Arab, with their own languages. But their sons and daughters, born into slavery, were no longer identified by their ancestry; they became merely vernacular in the Latin lingua franca and, in that sense, nameless.
15 In Zulu, the local bost is simply called ‘inkomo’ (plural ‘izinkomo’), onomatopoeically recalling the sound of lowing.
16 Taurotragus oryx, a tragelaphine bovid superficially resembling bovines
17 i.e. Khoisan hunter-gatherers
18 Cervidae: Alces alces, the European form of which is called ‘eland’ in Dutch and ‘élan’ in French