“Bison”: a word nearly driven to extinction

Last week, the US declared the bison its national mammal. This thundering ungulate makes for a powerful choice, both literally and symbolically: American settlers nearly brought this brawny bovine, whose massive herds once roamed the Great Plains and were so central to many Native American cultures, to near extinction. The name bison, appropriately enough, tells a similar tale.

The American bison. Image courtesy of Shannon Sims


Originally, the bison was a type of wild ox found throughout Europe, even in England. It’s now found only in the forests of Lithuania. In antiquity, this bison was also associated with the now-extinct aurochs or urus. Humans, clearly, have not been kind to the bison.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds its earliest evidence of bison in a Latin form, bisontes, in the late 1300s, but the word, along with the animal, then disappears from the record. It resurfaces in the 1600s, especially in historical texts like the King James Bible and classical translations. Come the 1690s, European explorers applied bison, also first in Latin form, to its new-world counterpart, Bison bison, where the word now largely roams.

Bison indeed derives from the Latin bison. English either borrowed it directly or from a French intermediary. But the word was probably not a native species to the Latin. Rome likely borrowed its word for this roamer from a Germanic source, which historical linguists represent in *wisand, itself likely migrating from a Balto-Slavic home.

Germanic languages helped populate this *wisand’s herd, including the Old English wesend. This word is as extinct as the mammal from the Isles. Except for an unlikely cognate: weasel. The bison and weasel certainly make for the sort of odd couple we’d only expect to find in a Disney movie, but their names, some etymologists believe, share a common root that notes the musky odor they emit, especially when rutting. Literally, they are the “stinking animals.”

Now, the US uses bison interchangeably with buffalo for its majestic mammal, though buffalo technically names the American bison’s distant Asian and African brethren. (Buffalo comes from the Greek, βούβαλος  or boubalos, originally used of antelopes.) They’re very different species, but these early Europeans dubbed Bison bison “buffalo” based on the likeness between the old- and new-world bovines. And well before they even used bison, in fact: the OED dates the earliest American buffalo usage to the 1630s.

The story of the word bison issues its own powerful, if small, reminder: the extinction of wildlife is even registered in language. Let’s be sure bison is never entered as “obsolete” in the dictionary. A good way to start is by keeping your distance, literally and symbolically, from wildlife, if we are to learn from a recent episode in Yellowstone National Park.

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Terabyte: a “monstrous” amount of data

Last week, the Panama Papers leaked 2.6 terabytes of data. That adds ups to 11.5 million confidential documents about the secret, and potentially scandalous, offshoring of wealth across the globe. That’s a lot of information. You might even call it a “monstrous” amount, if you look to the origin of the prefix tera

Monsters and marvels 

While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests terabyte in 1982, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) officially adopted the scientific prefix tera-, or tira- in its original French, in 1947. As the OED cites: “The following prefixes to abbreviations for the names of units should be used to indicate the specified multiples or sub-multiples of these units: T tira- 1012 ×.” One of the earliest usages, as far as I can tell, is teracycle, in reference to some very fast frequencies.

The IUPAC also gave the temporary names to some newly discovered elements, including ununtrium and ununpentium, as I discussed earlier this year.

To acknowledge the sheer size of this prefix quantifies, IUPAC scientists looked to a Greek word: τέρας, or teras. According to Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary,  the ancient Greek teras had two main meanings: 1) a “sign,” “wonder,” or “marvel,” as of the heavens; and 2) a “monster,” like a  giant serpent of the sea. The connecting sense appears to be “awe-inspiring size.”

The Modern Greek edition of Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast translates “beast” with our focal Greek word,  teras. Image from greekshops.com.

We see a similar sense development in a prodigy, which, as in its original Latin prodigium, named both a “portent” and a “monster.” Perhaps we can imagine the ancients – and ourselves – trying to make meaning out out of some sublime but terrifying storm or creature, as Edmund Burke philosophized.

Tera-ble words 

English, as did Ancient Greek, used tera- (or its genitive τερατ-, terat-) as a combining form to make new words. Apparently a nonce usage, English scholar John Spencer used teratoscopy, or “augury from prodigies,” in his 1665 Discourses Concerning Prodigies, as the OED records. We see a teratology, a “tale about something marvelous,” in Edwards Phillips’s 1678 New World of Words, an early English dictionary. By the 1720s, something teratical “resembled a monster.”

By 1842, biologists applied teratology to the “study of physiological abnormalities,” which reminds us that we once referred to such conditions as “monstrosities.” Terata, teratogen, teratoma, and teratogenesis developed as other scientific terms referring to various physiological abnormalities.

For Indo-European scholars, the Greek teras has its lexical lair in the Proto-Indo-European *kwer-, “to make.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) cites cognates in the Sanskrit karma (literally “something made,” hence an “act”) as well as the very word Sanskrit (“well-formed”). Barnhart’s etymological dictionary, among others, cites Balto-Slavic relatives meaning “sorcery” and “spell.”

What is the sense development from “make” to “monster”? As the AHD suggests, a monster can “make” harm – or cause destruction.

Super-sized storage

Terabytes aren’t the only “monsters” terrorizing computer technology. The giga- in gigabyte is also borrowed from the Greek. Here, γίγας, or gigas, originally one of the superhuman “giants” the Olympian gods overthrew. English ultimately gets its word giant from this Greek root. Like terabyte, giga- was adopted by the IUPAC in 1947, this prefix signifying 109, an order of magnitude of one billion.

According to some accounts,  computer scientist Werner Buchholz coined byte in 1956. A byte contains 8 bits of digital information; bit is shortened from binary digit. Byte apparently, nods to this bit and plays with bite  (appropriately enough for this discussion of monsters). Megabyte appears by 1965, kilobyte by 1970, if the OED is any measure.

Clearly, as computer memory increased, so did the need for ever-larger prefixes, hence the super-sized gigabyte and terabyte of the 1980s. (And up from a terabyte is a petabyte, but I’m not going to take that bait.)

A terabyte is indeed a “monstrous” amount of data. But the real monsters, many fear, are lurking in the shadowy, financial underworld of the offshore accounts, shell companies, and tax havens the Panama Papers may just bring to light.

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From Wimbledon to SCOTUS, court has been busy this past week. And while both courts are arguably the most prestigious on their respective, well, courts, the word court is humbler in its origin.


The English court comes from the Old French, cort, which was naming royal residences by the 12th century. It, in turn, originates in the Latin cohors, contracted to cors. This cohors had a few meanings, including a “retinue,” or, much more specifically, a military unit of 600 men, equivalent to 3 maniples, 6 centuries, or a tenth of a legion, if you care for martial mathematics.

This meaning survives in the English cohort, now often used in educational contexts.

Monarchy and might? Still pretty prestigious.

 But how about “barnyard” and other areas where livestock were kept? For, at the heart of court is “yard.” The Proto-Indo-European root is *gher-, a fertile base meaning “to grasp” or “enclose.”

In Latin’s cohors, we see *gher in the word’s second element: co-, “together,” and hors, from hortusmeaning “garden.” Perhaps you can see the connection to horticulture. So, cohors literally denotes “something enclosed together,” yielding both an enclosure, like a “barnyard,” or people grouped together, like a “retinue” of soldiers.

The French language of the court gave English: courtesy, originally the kind of behavior expected at the court; curtsy, originally a gender-neutral display of respect at court formed off a variant of courtesycourtierfrom a verb “to frequent a court”; courtesan, via the Italian cortigiana, a “woman of the court,” though also “prostitute”; and to court, from an expression for paying homage at a court. And the name Curtis is essentially courteous. Courtney, however, is unrelated.

Cortege, from the Italianand curtilage are yet more derivatives.

In the Middle Ages, courts took on their judicial senses; in the Renaissance, their sports, originally referring to tennis.


As I mentioned, *gher was, aptly, a productive root.

In the Germanic branch of Indo-European, *gher yielded English’s girdgirt, and girthas well as garden and the later component of kindergartenAsgard, mythological home to some very powerful Norse gods, would be nothing without it. (We saw the origin of the first part, As-, in the post on Oscar.)

In the Balto-Slavic branch, *gher has helped to name cities, as we see in the Russian Novogorod and Leningrad or the Serbo-Croatian Belgrade.

Old English had geard, which became and meant “yard” (no relation to the measurement), as well as figures in the latter half of orchardHangar, as in an airplane hangar, may be cognate, too.

Speaking of latter halves, yard keeps busy in English compounds. More specifically, as the so-called “head” of many compounds:

We have backyards and dooryardsscrapyards and junkyardslumberyards and shipyards, farmyards and stockyards. We have schoolyards. We have graveyards. We have vineyards, featuring some real shortening of vowelsWe also have common noun phrases like front yard and railroad yard

And my personal favorite? Courtyard. Which,  if you will, is an etymological pleonasm–as *gher-gher, a redundant expression.

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