BO-VRIL.

As an American, I’ve never actually had any experience with Bovril (and I can’t say I have any desire to), but I certainly know the word. Imagine my surprise when I was leafing through the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and encountered the following in the article on LYTTON, FIRST BARON (better known to me, and I presume you, as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose name lives on in the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad writing):

His sf novel is The Coming Race (1871[...]), a utopia set in an underground lost world inhabited by an evolved form of Homo sapiens, larger and wiser than surface dwellers. This race derives its moral and physical virtue from vril, an electromagnetic form of energy of universal utility which fuels flying machines and automata, and even makes telepathy possible. (The UK beef-tea Bovril took its name from vril.)

This is no urban myth; the official website of the company that makes the stuff says “The name Bovril comes from an unusual word Johnston found in a book. ‘Vril’ was ‘an electric fluid’ which ‘cured diseases and established equilibrium of natural powers.’ He combined it with the first two letters of the Latin word for beef ‘Bos’.” But the OED’s etymology (yes, they have an entry for Bovril—they’re Brits, aren’t they?) says simply “f. L. bōs, bovis, ox, cow.” Were they ashamed to cite a trashy popular novel? If so, they’d gotten over it by the time the Visor-Vywer fascicle appeared in 1920; it includes the entry:

vril
[Invented by Lytton.]
A mysterious force imagined as having been discovered by the people described in one of Lytton’s novels.
1871 LYTTON Coming Race vii. 47 These people consider that in vril they have arrived at the unity in natural energic agencies, which has been conjectured by many philosophers.

The last citation is from 1888 (Pall Mall G. 27 Dec. 4/1 If so,.. we are within hailing distance of the discovery of vril); I think it should be brought back into circulation. Use the vril, Luke!

Comments

  1. I wonder if “Vril” was supposed to be a pastiche of the “mysterious forces” that science was coming to be seen as consisting of at that point; compare Mesmer, or Baron Reichenbach’s “od” force, or in the next century Wilhelm Reich’s “orgone”… this type of stuff also pastiched in Rosny/Aine’s science-fiction template novel “La force mysterieuse” (1913).

  2. Ian Myles Slater says:

    The invention of “Vril” probably has a lot to do with the various “occult powers” that figured in some of Bulwer-Lytton’s other fiction, but the general “popular science” background is certainly relevant, too. “The Coming Race” seems to have been intended as something of a departure from his usual line. (It also has a general resemblance to “Lost Race” stories, in the manner of H. Rider Haggard, too; among other things.)
    I find it odd that the OED doesn’t make the connection for Bovril. Neither Vril nor Bovril appears in their (admittedly non-comprehensive) list of science-fiction derived words, either, which does include projected changes (http://www.jessesword.com/sf/list).
    (For those unfamiliar with the topic, see http://www.jessesword.com/sf/home for the OED’s on-line project to document words in or popularized by the fiction, criticism, and fan literature, and http://www.oed.com/newsletters/2004-03/scifi.html for a short history of the effort.)

  3. Otto Jespersen’s short book on English (its name escapes me right now) is full of examples from him. And that’s well and good, of course, someone as widely read as Lytton was certainly representative of the language as it was used and understood by the reading public. It did take me a few examples (threaded among others from more well-remembered writers) to jog my memory as to who in hell this “Lytton” was. I wonder has Karl May been cited much on German, hahah.

  4. Doesn’t it seem likely that Lytton derived ‘vril’ from e.g. ‘virilis’?

  5. Michael Idov says:

    I would still consider Bovril a semi-literate portmanteau of “bovine” and “virile” until proven otherwise… Occam would dictate as much.

  6. Ian Myles Slater says:

    Since the very successful novel was published in 1870, and the product known as “Johnston’s Fluid Beef” was given its new name in 1874, when it was still a current catch-word, I suspect that Unilever (the company which now owns the product) has the basic story right. (The assumption that the then-proprietor actually read the book may go beyond the evidence.)
    The story has certainly circulated for a long time without being challenged (I recall it from the 1960s).
    Bulwer-Lytton (a many of many names at various stages of his life) might have objected to the appropriation of his literary property. But he had died in January 1873, and, despite his extensive use of occult themes and spiritualism in some of his writings, apparently did not manage to manifest his displeasure. (True believers may of course suggest that he was grateful for the free advertising.)

  7. I have vague memories of being on holiday in Brittany as a kid and being slightly shocked to see a “Bovril” van where the picture of the cow was replaced by an image of a horse’s head. But the only reference I can find to “Chevril” on the Net is to the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War where the besieged British troops had to eat a horse-meat paste substitute.

  8. I first read about vril in Stephen Levy’s Hackers back around the beginning of the 90s. (I don’t have the book anymore, but it’s on Amazon and search-insideable.)

  9. I recall reading years ago that Bovril was named for Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘Vril’, which, in turn, was derived from the Latin ‘virilis’.
    Peter Ustinov, in his autobiography, Dear Me, described his mother’s horror, on arriving, in England, to find that every railway station was called ‘Bovril’. Her journey, of course, terminated in ‘the biggest Bovril of them all’.
    I am, let it be stated, a lover of Bovril.

  10. At the risk of self-promotion, let me mention that some time ago on Language Log I described Lord Lytton’s relationship to the native languages of British Columbia. A diverse man, and in my opinion not such a bad writer.

  11. Oh, I agree — I should have mentioned that I think the eponymous contest gives him a bad rap.

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  13. Jimmy Ho says:

    Way to go, BlogSpot. I liked you better back in the Mainland, when all you showed was a blank screen.

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