Buckaroo Jenner. Doodle by me.


For every deadly virus, we hope there is a vaccine. The word, it turns out, milks a very old root.

In 1796, British scientist Edward Jenner is credited with inventing the first vaccine by inoculating patients with cowpox in order to protect against smallpox.

That’s the nice way of putting it.

The story is more like this: Jenner, following in the efforts of many before him, took pus from a cowpox sore in a milkmaid and injected it into an eight-year-old. Then, Jenner injected the boy with some smallpox and he didn’t die.

OK, that’s a bit glib. Jenner, considered the father of immunology, was a much more methodical about it all–and put in place one hell of a protective measure to save countless, truly countless lives.

Two years later in 1798, he published a bookletAn Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire and Known by the Name of Cow Pox.

Jenner is said to have called this procedure vaccination. See, variolae vaccinae means “smallpox of the cow,” with vaccinae literally meaning “of the cow.” The Latin vaccinus is an adjective meaning “from the cow,” formed on vacca, meaning “cow.”


The Latin vacca shares a cognate in the Sanskrit vasa, also meaning “cow.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the Sanskrit and Latin back to *wokeh-, one of three roots linguists have reconstructed for “cow.” (More on that soon.)

To the famed Frenchman Louis Pasteur, a cow was cache. He helped generalize vaccine (via French vaccin) for its uses beyond cowpox.

You may quickly recognize the Spanish for “cow,” vaca and vaquero, a “cowboy” or “herdsman.”  But buckaroo? Yep, this is how we Anglicized vaquero.

If we’re to remember Jenner, what better way than as the buckaroo of vaccines? It works on so many levels.

m ∫ r ∫

2 thoughts on “vaccine

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