Though the 2014 midterm results may be casting a week-long shadow, Veterans Day is a time when the left and right come together to honor the men and women who have served in the US military. Perhaps the word veteran calls up an elder who fought in World War II. Or maybe it marshals up images of younger soldiers coming back from Iraq. The etymology of veteran indeed proves the word is very much about age – and some rather unwarlike animals.

“Bellwether.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Veteran is a relative veteran in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in 1509, when, much as now, the word named an old or experienced soldier.

The word marched into England from France and from Italy yet before that: Latin has veterānus, a “veteran,” from vetus, meaning “old,” “aged,” or “long-standing.” Some forms of the word refer to “tradition,” “antiquity,” or “ancient forebears.” Others indicate the “slyness” or “expertise” that comes with age. A verbal form of vetus, moreover, is ultimately behind inveterate, which aged into English with a nefarious “obstinacy.”

By the end of the 1500s, the OED cites veteran‘s general reference to “long experience in any office or position,” which we see today especially with respect to politicians and broadcasters, if my ear is any judge.

Young & Old

The Latin vetus has a well-vetted origin in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *wet-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) defines as a “year.” The sense, then, of vetus is “having many years,” as the AHD offers. This root parented meanings of “year” in Sanskrit, Greek, and Hittite. In Balto-Slavic tongues, it lived on as “old.”

Today, the elderly, not to mention veterans themselves, may not get the kind of attention we lavish on the young. But *wet– is not without its youth obsession, if you will. The root also produced Latin’s vitulus, a “calf,” “young bull,” or “foal”–these we often refer to as “yearlings.” Vitulus is from a derived form of *wet-, *wetelos, meaning “yearling” and underscoring the significance of livestock domestication to PIE culture.

Speaking of calves, veal is also from vitulus; related is vellum, parchment made from the skin of calves. In a particularly tasty etymological twist, so might be that home of Rome, Italy, which the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World glosses as “land of young cattle.” It’s no surprise, then, Italy is known for its leather and saltimbocca.

Old cattle, however, are driving the job title so many youth dream to have: a vet, in the animal, not Vietnam, sense, of course. Vet is shortened from veterinarian or veterinary, which in its earliest uses denoted the medical treatment of domestic animals, especially cattle (OED). A vet sounds much better than a cattle doctor, no?

Behind vet is the Latin adjective veterinārius, describing “beasts of burden.” As Walter Skeat explains, the Latin term “probably meant, originally, an old animal, one that was no longer fit for anything but carrying burdens…” (Too bad this adjective may also describe all too well our cultural treatment of our elderly and our veterans.) Eric Partridge suggests the opposite, though, stating the adjective describes a domestic quadruped “old enough, fit, to carry burdens.” The things we, young and old, carry.

Leaders & Followers

Alas, we can never roam far from politics in language. Veteran is no exception, and I’m not referring to the recent Veterans Affairs scandal.

With jockeying for the 2016 race for the White House underway in all but name, we will soon enough be busy with “vetting” vice presidential candidates. As nicely treated in 2008 piece by Juliet Lapidos, to vet is from the self-same noun shortened from veterinarian. It initially referred to treating horses  before races.

Pollsters and pundits will also soon be descending on the so-called bellwether states, whose voting is seen to predict the electoral winner. Originally, a bellwether was “the leading sheep of a flock, on whose neck a bell is hung” (OED).  The bell would signal the sheep’s location as well as lead along its wooly comrades. The term, of course, has general currency in its sense of “leader.”

Bellwether is a compound, you may have guessed, joining bell and wether. The latter is from an Old English word for a “male sheep,” particularly a castrated one. (It remains to be seen whether Iowa Senator-elect will be a bellwether–or just continue making wethers of hogs.)

Sheep and bells may seem as far as possible from what veteran may stand for, but, wether, too, can thank the PIE *wet-, via the Proto-Germanic *wetruz, “yearling.”

But leadership? Now that is something a veteran in any field of station can stand in attention to.

m ∫ r ∫


5 thoughts on “veteran

  1. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the English Latinate veterinarian (veterinarius) replaced the native English “dog-leech” around the 1520s although the now obsolete dog-leech persisted in the language up until the 1800s with the derogative meaning of “An ignorant or underqualified medical practitioner; a quack.” according to the OED.

    I don’t know whether the ‘dog-‘ word component represents a meronym for all animals or if it was specific to just dogs as I also saw ‘horse-leech’ cited in the OED quotations? I kind of like this ‘dog-leech’ which I’ve never encountered before and it mirrors the same “animal+doctor” word formation as the native words for veterinarian in the Scandinavian languages ie. Danish: dyrlæge Icelandic: dýralæknir and Norwegian: dyrlege where the respective -læge/-læknir/-lege are cognate with Old English lǽce (leech) for doctor.


    1. What a colorful term, indeed! The OED also sites “cow-leech” and “bullock-leech.”

      Concerning “dogleech,” the earliest use (~1530s) was of “quack,” so “dog” element appears to be referring to a “dog” as a contemptible person, a cur (OED). The veterinarian is attested about a century later.

      Liked by 1 person

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