“Language is among the most durable links we have with the people of earlier times, despite the fact that words continue to disappear for any number of reasons,” says Jeffrey Kacirk in his introduction to Forgotten English. Hence, a love of language and love of history find themselves so comfortably intertwined.
I found one of the words that have disappeared in Jeffrey’s book that isn’t just a word that has disappeared from common parlance, but an entire malady that no longer afflicts our populace. This, I assume most of you would agree, is a good thing, since on any given 21st century day we wake up to a new syndrome or disease to take up any slack in the human discomfort and abject misery department.
So, I bring to you (through Jeffrey, of course) “boanthropy,” which was known as a rare form of insanity in which a man imagined himself to be an ox. The heyday for boanthropic afflictions was in the 19th century, inspired by that ancient source of all things scientific: the Bible (just ask the Texas Board of Education). Specifically, it was the Book of Daniel in which King Nebuchadnezzar “was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven.”
But before I digress down the Biblical path of virgin births, we should consider that actual men of the 19th century suffered with boanthropy, according to Robert Chambers described several “ruminating men,” in his Book of Days. Published in 1864, Chambers describes a man “who was obliged to retire from the dinner-table to ruminate undisturbed, and who declared that the second process of mastication ‘was sweeter than honey, and accompanied with a delightful relish.’” Chambers also reported that the man’s son was similarly afflicted but was able to control it better and could “defer its exercise till a more convenient opportunity.”
In case any of you non-farmers are unclear about the “second process of mastication,” unlike humans with a simple stomach, cattle are ruminants, having one stomach with four compartments: the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum, with the rumen being the largest compartment. This digestive system allows the bovine body to digest the undigestible by allowing them to regurgitate and rechew the difficult food as “cud.” The cud is then reswallowed and further digested by specialized microorganisms in the rumen.
As a non-farmer myself, I have to wonder if having four compartments multiplies the possibility of indigestion by four? If I had to spend much more than I do now with a simple stomach, would I have to quadruple my intake? I mean, rechewing might not actually neutralize the hot chili peppers that haunt me long after I’ve left the restaurant. My antacid budget could conceivably cut down my hoof – I mean foot and hand – care expenditure.
My mirthful udderances to the contrary, the fear of boanthropy was no laughing matter back in 1792 when smallpox was rampaging through European populations, killing one in three people who were infected. Edward Jenner successfully developed a vaccine for smallpox by injecting a boy with closely-related cowpox germs. And yet, in the some-things-never-change category, he had critics who tried to scuttle his project. The big fear was boanthropy! The critics alleged that those who received the vaccine would develop bovine appetites, make cow-like sounds, and go about on four legs butting people with their horns—either real or imagined.
Maybe the virgin birth wasn’t so far-fetched after all.
[Quotes taken from Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk and information regarding bovine digestion from Wikipedia.]
I do love the history of words…