ZEBU.

Somehow the word zebu came up, and I thought “That’s an odd word, I wonder where it came from?” Turns out nobody knows; the OED says (in an unrevised entry) “< French zébu (Buffon, who states that it was shown under this name at a fair in Paris in 1752).” I thought surely more must be known by now, but no, the latest Merriam-Webster Collegiate and the latest American Heritage Dictionary both just say it’s from zébu. There are more details at Hobson-Jobson, which takes a sensible attitude:

This whimsical name, applied in zoological books, English as well as French, to the humped domestic ox (or Brahminy bull) of India, was taken by Buffon from the exhibitors of such a beast at a French fair, who perhaps invented the word, but who told him the beast had been brought from Africa, where it was called by that name. We have been able to discover no justification for this in African dialects, though our friend Mr. R. Cust has kindly made search, and sought information from other philologists on our account. Zebu passes, however, with most people as an Indian word; thus Webster’s Dictionary, says “Zebu, the native Indian name.” The only word at all like it that we can discover is zobo (q.v.) or zhobo, applied in the semi-Tibetan regions of the Himālaya to a useful hybrid, called in Ladak by the slightly modified form dsomo. In Jäschke’s Tibetan Dict. we find “Ze’-ba . . . . l. hump of a camel, zebu, etc.” This is curious, but, we should think, only one of those coincidences which we have had so often to notice.

Comments

  1. The only word at all like it that we can discover is zobo (q.v.) or zhobo, applied in the semi-Tibetan regions of the Himālaya to a useful hybrid, called in Ladak by the slightly modified form dsomo. In Jäschke’s Tibetan Dict. we find “Ze’-ba . . . . l. hump of a camel, zebu, etc.” This is curious, but, we should think, only one of those coincidences which we have had so often to notice.
    Given that the word describes a humped bull from India, is it not equally likely that the word was adopted from the Tibetan by some visitor to the “semi-Tibetan regions” at some time ? The sniffy reference to a coincidence seems to ignore that possibility rather off-handedly.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    I think that the “semi-Tibetan” origin is quite likely. It does not mean that the beast originated in Tibet or in a neighbouring region, only that the dictionary compiler recorded a similar word there. The Tibetan word is recorded as Ze-ba, and a quotation from 1898 (in the H-J article) gives the Indian word as Zebra, perhaps a mishearing on the part of the recorder, who is well aware that the word does not refer to the African equine but to “Indian humped cattle”. The other terms quoted are compatible with regional variations on the same name.
    “Zébu” as written in French is probably not an original transcription from the spoken word, but rather a written copy of a word recorded in another language where the letter z indicates an affricate ts or dz as suggested by the Ladak form dsomo. It is doubtful that the recording was very accurate as concerns the vowels either.

  3. I wonder if anyone has tried to look for an Arabic etymology. If there were one, I think it could be more plausible than a Tibetan one. After all, for Buffon the zebus he saw were (North) African animals, rather than Indian.
    This is what Buffon himself writes about his first encounter with a “zébu” in his 1754 version of Histoire naturelle:
    “Ce petit bœuf de Belon, b’est q’une varieté dans l’espèce du bœuf; … ; nous l’avons vû vivant: son conducteur nous dit qu’il venoit d’Afrique, qu’on l’appeloit zébu, qu’il étoit domestique, & qu’on s’en servoit pour monture; c’est en effet un animal très-doux & même fort caressant, d’une figure agréable, quoique massive & un peut trop carrée; cependant, il est en tout si semblable à un bœuf, que je ne puis en donner une idée plus juste, qu’en disant que si l’on regardoit un taureau de la plus belle forme & de plus beau poil avec un verre qui diminuât les objets de plus de moitié, cette figure rapetissée servoit celle du zébu.” (p.299)
    As the footnote on p. 302 explains, the “petit bœuf de Belon” (Belon’s small cattle) which serves as the reference point of Buffon’s story is the creature Pierre Belon had seen in Cairo, and which had been brought to Cairo from “Azamie” (=Azania = Somalia?), which is described, however, as “province d’Asie” (“an Asian province”). The handler of the creature seen by Buffon told him that it comes from Africa, too – and is called “zébu” (alas, he did not say in which language – and Buffon did not care to say whether the handler was French or Arab or what…).
    Moreover, Buffon describes the appearance of this “original zebu” (probably, seen at a fair in 1752) as being that of a good [European] bull reduced in size more than by half. No mention of the characteristic hump of the Indian zebu known to us!
    However, when in 1763 he got to describe and measure another zebu, now at the Royal Menagerie in Versailles (brought there in August 1761; pp. 439 sq.), he had it drawn with a characteristic hump (plate XLII, after p. 448). There, he also identifies is with some cattle (called “Dant” or “Lant”) historically known from the Roman Numidia (north Africa).
    According to Google Translate, the common Arabic word for “cattle” is written ثور , and sounds something like “thuwura”. I guess not too much like “zebu”…

  4. Greg Lee says:

    I agree with your verdict “nobody knows” and with Hobson-Jobson’s judgement that the closest resemblant forms he could find, zobo and Ze’-ba, are just coincidences. Apparently, there was never any particular reason to suspect a Tibetan word origin other than a Webster dictionary maker’s guess that the word must come from some Indian language!

  5. The sniffy reference to a coincidence seems to ignore that possibility rather off-handedly.
    No, the reference to coincidence is an acknowledgment that there is no link joining the words. Laymen always underrate the prevalence of coincidence, but I am surprised to see marie-lucie falling for the “semi-Tibetan” origin. I’m pretty sure if there were anything to it, linguists and lexicographers would have pinned it down in the last couple of centuries.

  6. SFReader says:

    зебу
    нескл., м., ж., одуш. (фр. zébu

  7. SFReader says:

    (фр. zébu от тибет. mdzopo).

  8. Doesn’t anyone want to discuss the pronunciation? According to Hilaire Belloc, in the last poem of A Moral Alphabet, it may be accented on either syllable:
    “Z
    for this Zébu, who (like all Zebús)*
    Is held divine by scrupulous Hindoos.
    MORAL
    Idolatry, as you are aware,
    Is highly reprehensible. But there,
    We needn’t bother — when we get to Z
    Our interest in the Alphabet is dead.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    *Von Kettner writes it ‘Zébu’; Wurst ‘Zebú’:
    I split the difference and use the two.”
    For a formatted version and more Belloc, see my blogpost of almost ten years ago.

  9. Hmmm. Let me try again on that link:
    http://www.drweevil.org/archives/000456.html

  10. I say ZEE-boo myself. (Fixed your link, by the way.)

  11. …I am surprised to see marie-lucie falling for the “semi-Tibetan” origin. I’m pretty sure if there were anything to it, linguists and lexicographers would have pinned it down in the last couple of centuries.
    Unless they were all of the “coindicence” school 🙂 More seriously, why doesn’t m-l’s argument stand up ?

  12. Greg Lee says:

    Paul writes: More seriously, why doesn’t m-l’s argument stand up ?
    m-l writes: It is doubtful that the recording was very accurate as concerns the vowels either.
    This is an argument? The vowels in the proposed source word may differ ad lib and so may the consonants?

  13. marie-lucie says:

    SFR: (фр. zébu от тибет. mdzopo).
    SFR, I don’t know enough Russian to understand your longer comment, but do you have more on the above? or are you taking it from the H-J article?
    Perhaps I did not express myself very clearly: I don’t mean that the origin of word has to be Tibetan or a neighbouring language – this type of word could wander along with the spread of the animal. I could also be reshaped according to false etymology (eg the Tibetan forms seem to be bimorphemic, with each part meaning something).
    I don’t see a reason to doubt an origin on the Indian subcontinent since the animal seems to be originally Asian. According to WiPe (I know, it is not always reliable) zebus were exported from India to Africa for centuries. In such a case, names often travel along with the animals.
    Is the “zebras” report from 1898 findable? the quote does not give any clues about the region where the word (which could be “zebwa” or “zibwa”) was heard by the writer, but it seems to be definitely a part of India.
    As for Philippine Cebu, the older native name of this island was Sugbo.
    LH: if there were anything to it, linguists and lexicographers would have pinned it down in the last couple of centuries.
    Not necessarily! there are still many mysteries in linguistics.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    m-l writes: It is doubtful that the recording was very accurate as concerns the vowels either.
    GLee: – This is an argument? The vowels in the proposed source word may differ ad lib and so may the consonants?
    The “proposed source word” (if correct) is given in several forms, notably with different (though related) consonants according to different dialects.
    Unfamiliar sounds are very difficult to transcribe by an untrained person, and the transcription often varies greatly from one person to another, especially if the transcribers are from different language backgrounds: witness how the name of the Libyan dictator was written in different newspapers, even in the same country. Unfamiliar vowels are especially difficult because there is nothing in their pronunciation to “anchor” them to a specific part of the vocal tract. For instance, “Tamil” in French is “tamoul”, “Kalmyk” is “kalmouk”, etc. The difference in the transcriptions does not come from “ad lib” variation within the languages in question, but from the limited number of vowel letters or letter combinations available to untrained transcribers for writing sounds which are similar but not identical to the ones the transcribers are used to.

  15. Greg Lee says:

    Dr. Weevil writes: Doesn’t anyone want to discuss the pronunciation? According to Hilaire Belloc, in the last poem of A Moral Alphabet, it may be accented on either syllable: …
    You mean, regardless of origins, how is the word said in English, or should it be said, given its spelling?
    We have menu with initial stress, and Peru with final stress, so it seems both initial and final stress are possible. However, menu is a dubious precedent, since the n has a palatal off-glide, due to the origin of the [u] from a diphthongization in the recent history of English, and the [b] of zebu is not followed by this off-glide.
    Another possible model is tutu, but this might not be good, either, because the last syllable has a secondary stress, which you can tell is there even if you can’t hear it directly, since the second t of tutu doesn’t flap, as it would if the following vowel had no stress.
    So I’d be inclined to vote for zebu with stress on the final, if it didn’t sound so funny.

  16. It’s gonna sound funny no matter what you do. It looks funny. It is funny.

  17. Henrique says:

    There are a island in Philippines named “Cebu”. It is the same world used to designate the Zebu cattle in Spanish. The site of the Cebu City (http://www.cebucity.gov.ph/history) stated that: “The name Cebu came from the word “SEBU” meaning animal fat.” Perhaps you can find something in this way. By the way, in Portuguese, the word for animal fat, specially for bovine fat is “Sebo”.

  18. which had been brought to Cairo from “Azamie” (=Azania = Somalia?), which is described, however, as “province d’Asie” (“an Asian province”)

    ‘Ajami’ is an Arabic word (per Wiki, Arabic: حي العجمي‎, Hebrew: עג’מי‎) that means ‘Persian.’ This fits with an Asian province, if not quite Tibet.

    Latin sebum = tallow, reflected in English sebaceous.

  19. George Gibbard says:

    عجمي (ʕajamiyy) often means Persian, but really just means ‘not Arabic’, and it is also applied to non-Arabic languages in Africa written in Arabic script.

  20. We discussed it a bit here.

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