June 30, 2017
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I have long been interested in the word boor, in terms of its relationship to its obvious cognates, the Dutch boer and the German bauer. All three words ultimately stem from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *buraz, which means “house” or “dwelling.” This word in turn comes from *bheu, which means “to be” or “to become,” with associated meanings related to “growth” or “increase.” The connection between being a farmer and the concepts of “growth” and “increase” is direct and obvious.
While the modern Dutch and German words simply mean “farmer,” the English boor has lost this literal sense and now means “rude” or “uncouth” person. While farmers are often stereotyped as rude and uncouth, I suspect that the transition of boor into a term of disparagement has more to do with the linguistic politics of Late Medieval England. It was replaced by the late 14th century by “farmer,” a word of French origin and a legacy of the Norman invasion. The negative connotations associated with boor appear to be in evidence by the 16th century.
While I always find these types of investigations interesting, a chance encounter with the Irish word bóaire allowed me to consider boor from another angle. Bóaire literally means “cow noble,” being composed of bó (“cow” or “cattle”) and aire (“noble,” from the Sanskrit arya).
Breaking the word down in this way reveals another level of meaning and makes clear the word’s ancient Indo-European roots. A noble is a noble, defined by blood and family, but in the archaic societies in which wealth was measured in cattle, a “cow noble” is someone who has achieved a high level of social status, a form of nobility, through economic means. In modern terms, we might call someone like this nouveau riche or, more in keeping with the word’s agricultural theme, a gentleman farmer.