You’ve all read it somewhere: “The word vegetarian has nothing to do with vegetables, it was derived from the Latin ‘vegetus’ meaning whole, fresh, lively, vigorous” etc…
Whilst all the dictionaries simply suggest the derivation as ‘vegetable+arian’.
Most of us never really believed the ‘vegetus’ myth, but it was impossible to disprove it – until last year.
The issue arose because by the late 19th century the origins of the V word had already been lost, even though we now know it was first used by people closely associated with Alcott House, near London, around 1840 (see the footnote for full details of last year’s research) – and the originators did indeed see themselves as just vegetable eaters. In the early 19th century the word ‘vegetable’ simply meant any type of plant food, including fruits, grains etc.. (as in 'animal, vegetable or mineral'). Over the last 150 years the meaning has reduced to just certain types of plants.
But the the origins of ‘vegetarian’ had been lost, and in his 1906 book ‘The Logic of Vegetarianism’, Henry Salt wrote:
No-one has a better right to speak on this matter than Professor J.E.B. Mayor, the great Latin scholar, and he stated that, looking at the word etymologically, “vegetarian” cannot mean “an eater of vegetables.” It is derived from vegetus, “vigorous,” and means, strictly interpreted, “one who aims at vigour.” Mind I am not saying that the originators of the term “vegetarian” had this meaning in view . . .
Salt's last line "I am not saying that the originators of the term 'vegetarian' had this meaning in view" shows the opposite of the claims from some that he supported the myth.
The first known use in print of 'vegetarian' was in 1842, and for almost the next forty years there is no reference whatsoever, in any of the vegetarian journals or books, to 'vegetus'. It first appeared in the Vegetarian Messenger 1879 in a translation of an article from Germany - the writer suggested 'vegetus' as the origin, but admitted he was merely guessing. Prof. Mayor would have read that and seems to have elaborated on it.
Mayor was a Professor of Latin at Cambridge and, from the mid 1880s, the President of the Vegetarian Society. In his dual positions he was naturally taken seriously and it caught on. This was a convenient solution to the problem of eggs/dairy not being vegetables (plant foods), but it is obvious that even Salt, himself a later Vice-President, was dubious about it.
Vegetarian can equally be seen as derived from the late Latin ‘vegetabile’ – meaning plant – as in Regnum Vegetabile /Plant Kingdom. Hence vegetable, vegetation – and vegetarian. Though others suggest that 'vegetable' itself is derived from 'vegetus'. But it’s very unlikely that the originators went through all that either – they really did just join ‘vegetable+arian’, as the dictionaries have said all along.
Of course words change over time, and dictionaries do not decide the meanings of words, they merely reflect common usage.
The classic example of change is the word ‘gay’ – which some younger people today might not even know used to mean just ‘happy’. Back in the 1970s I did a lot of sailing with a friend who had restored a 1930s boat, and he refused to change the name from its original ‘The Gay Lady’ – which brought a few comments from other passing sailors…
So ‘vegetarian’ today means whatever most people use it to mean – and in the west it has become synonymous with ‘vegetable-egg-and-milk eater’ (at one time called the VEM diet), or in India just vegetable-and-milk.
Changing common usage is extremely difficult. And as much as some of us today would like to change this one back we are now up against all the supermarket products labelled a ‘suitable for vegetarians’ when many (but not all of course) contain eggs and dairy products. Maybe we’ll get back to the original meaning one day, but it certainly won’t be easy.
Meanwhile, whatever it now means, it definitely had nothing to do with ‘vegetus’ – that was just a myth, and if you see anyone claiming it, send them this blog!
For the short version of the real origins of the word 'vegetarian' see:
For the much longer version, with full details of the research into the origins of ‘vegetarian’ see:
For more about vegan history, see my free e-book: ‘World Veganism – past, present and future.” It has now been updated to include the above article, and more. You can download it for free, or replace your existing copy at: www.ivu.org/history/Vegan_History.pdf (5mb)
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