I wanted to call this post “Cows and College Graduates,” but blog titles must be plain and to the point.
Warning: This is something of a shaggy dog story, so if you’re the impatient type, you may want to skip this post.
The Latin word for cow is vacca. When Edward Jenner was looking for a way to prevent smallpox (variola), he worked with the less deadly disease cowpox (variolae vaccinae).
Variola is from Latin varius, “spotted,” or varus, “pimple.” Vaccinae is from Latin vaccinus, “from cows.” Jenner coined the word vaccination for his technique of scratching cowpox virus into the skin. Survivors of cowpox were immune to smallpox.
The word baccalaureate comes from Medieval Latin baccalaureus, “student with a first degree.”
Baccalaureate is related to the English word bachelor. Indeed, we refer to a B.A. (Artium Baccalaureus) as a “bachelor’s degree.”
At the end of the 13th century, a bachelor was a young man in training for knighthood. Although one conjecture is that bachelor derives from Latin baculum, “stick,” because squires practiced with staves instead of swords, the more likely source is Medieval baccalarius, “vassal farmer.”
Baccalarius derived from baccalia, “a herd of cows.” Bacca was a Low Latin variant of vacca, “cow.” A baccalaria was originally a grazing farm and a baccalarius a cowherd or cowboy.
In the 14th century the meaning of bachelor evolved from “knight in training” to “junior member of a guild or university.” In time, because young men still pursuing their educations couldn’t afford–in terms of time or money–to marry, bachelor took on the meaning of “unmarried man.”
The “-larius” of baccalarius became the “-laureus” of baccalaureus by way of folk etymology. Before schools adopted the practice of awarding cheesy plastic trophies, academic achievement was honored by the bestowal of a crown of laurel leaves. “Laurel berries” in Latin is bacca lauri. Ergo, rustic baccalarius became classy baccalaureus and the cow connection was no more.