Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The aurochs – etymology

Posted by Fredsvenn on July 25, 2014

The aurochs (pl. aurochs, or rarely aurochsen, aurochses), also urus, ure (Bos primigenius), is an extinct type of large wild cattle that inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa. It is the ancestor of domestic cattle. The species survived in Europe until the last recorded aurochs died in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland in 1627.

During the Neolithic Revolution, which occurred during the early Holocene, there were at least two aurochs domestication events: one related to the Indian subspecies, leading to zebu cattle; the other one related to the Eurasian subspecies, leading to taurine cattle.

Other species of wild bovines were also domesticated, namely the wild water buffalo, gaur, and banteng. In modern cattle, numerous breeds share characteristics of the aurochs, such as a dark colour in the bulls with a light eel stripe along the back (the cows being lighter), or a typical aurochs-like horn shape.

The aurochs was variously classified as Bos primigenius, Bos taurus, or, in old sources, Bos urus. However, in 2003, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature “conserved the usage of 17 specific names based on wild species, which are pre-dated by or contemporary with those based on domestic forms”, confirming Bos primigenius for the aurochs.

Taxonomists who consider domesticated cattle a subspecies of the wild aurochs should use B. primigenius taurus; those who consider domesticated cattle to be a separate species may use the name B. taurus, which the Commission has kept available for that purpose.

The words aurochs, urus, and wisent have all been used synonymously in English. However, the extinct aurochs/urus is a completely separate species from the still-extant wisent, also known as European bison. The two were often confused, and some 16th-century illustrations of aurochs and wisents have hybrid features.

The word urus (pl. uri) is a Latin word, but was borrowed into Latin from Germanic (cf. Old English/Old High German ūr, Old Norse úr). In German, OHG ūr was compounded with ohso “ox”, giving ūrohso, which became early modern Aurochs. The modern form is Auerochs.

The word aurochs was borrowed from early modern German, replacing archaic urochs, also from an earlier form of German. The word is invariable in number in English, though sometimes back-formed singular auroch and innovated plural aurochses occur.

The use in English of the plural form aurochsen is nonstandard, but mentioned in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. It is directly parallel to the German plural and recreates by analogy the same distinction as English ox vs. oxen.

Aurochs

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