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 seems to come from *bhu, which means “to be” or “to become,” with associated meanings related to “growth” or “increase,” which seem to build off the idea of “becoming.”
While the modern Dutch and German words simply mean “farmer,” the English boor has lost this literal sense and now means “rude” or “uncouth.” While farmers are often characterized as rude and uncouth, I suspect that the transition that the word boor has undergone, whereby it has become a term of disparagement with its literal meaning being overtaken by a word of French origin is a legacy of the Norman invasion and the corruption of the language that followed. This does in fact seem to be the case, with farmer entering English in the late 14th century and the negative connotations associated with boor 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 derivation. A noble is a noble, defined by blood and family, but in an archaic society where wealth is 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.