As Europa discovered, it’s hard to know your bovines sometimes. What’s the difference between a bison and a buffalo? The jocular Bo-Brummie would say, ‘can’t wash yer ‘ands in a buffalo.’ But etymologically bison (acc. bisontem) is a Latin word for a wild ox, of Germanic origin (OHG wisant). Seneca calls them shaggy (villosi bisontes) and liable to flee the huntress Diana. Bewick labels them ‘the animal with the hump’ (between the shoulders) and says ‘it is dangerous to pursue him’ – except in forests. Unfortunately the American bison, hunted on the plains, has often been called a buffalo too.
But a buffalo is not the same beast at all. ‘Fierce, cruel, and treacherous … he frequently stands behind trees, waiting the coming of some passenger; when he rushes out upon him … tramples him to death … tearing him with his horns and teeth, and licking him with is rough tongue till the skin is nearly stripped from the body.’ Bewick’s description (in 1790) may overstate the danger of saying βοῦ to a buffalo, but he’s also aware that some species of buffalo can be domesticated (Greek boukolein, to tend cattle, gives us a name for pastoral poetry – bucolics). Buffalo comes from Latin bufalus, variant of bubalus meaning a wild ox or buffalo. The basic ox-word in Greek is bous and in Latin is bos (acc. bovem) from which we get beef (via French boef) and the brand name Bovril, or at least the bo-. Is Bovril really a combination of bo- and Vril, an imaginary form of energy invented by E. Bulwer-Lytton in The Coming Race (1871)? What was in B-L’s mind when naming this power Vril? vires (f.pl.) or virilis? The Vril-ya unfortunately didn’t say adsit tibi vis.