Etymology of the Day: Butter

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Butter is a bread-and-butter vocabulary word, but it may have spread all the way from ancient Scythia.


English has long been churning butter. The Old English butere comes from the Latin butyrum, loaned early on into Germanic languages. Latin, in turn, borrowed butyrum from the Greek boutyron (βούτυρον). Many etymologists think the Greek boutyron joins the words bous (cow, ox) and tyros (cheese).

If this is true, butter is literally “cow-cheese.”

But butter wasn’t a native product to the ancient Romans and Greeks. They were oil cultures, importing it – and possibly the word, either directly or in translation – from the East, possibly from a group of Iranian-descended nomads called the Scythians.

Homer and Virgil didn’t eat butter at first, though: They used it in baths and as medicine. So too the Anglo-Saxons, though butter was also a staple of their diet. The earliest record the Oxford English Dictionary finds for butter indeed comes in a 10th-century collection of leechdoms, or “medicines.” (Leech is from the Old English for “physician.”) As one remedy prescribes: Wið geswell, genim þas ylcan wyrte myllefolium mid buteran gecnucude. Or, roughly, “For a boil, take the yarrow plant mixed with butter.”

Whatever it’s called, however it’s used, butter is a delicious etymology.

m ∫ r ∫ 


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