The Grammarphobia Blog

Vet noire

Q: When did “vetrin” replace “veteran” and “vetrinarian” replace “veterinarian”? This drives me crazy. I hear it on NPR as well as TV news programs. I hope misusage hasn’t corrupted two perfectly good words.

A: Sorry! The title of this post doesn’t make much sense, but we couldn’t resist the pun.

As for your question, those pronunciations may drive you crazy, but they’re not incorrect. Both “veteran” and “veterinarian” have clipped alternate pronunciations that are standard English.

In each case, the word has a longer and a shorter pronunciation, and the shorter loses the second syllable.

So “veteran” can properly be pronounced as three syllables or as two. “Veterinarian” can properly be pronounced as six syllables or as five.

These pronunciations are given as standard in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

By the way, “veteran” and “veterinarian” sound as if they have something in common, and it turns out that they may be distantly related.

The word for an old or experienced soldier came into English in the early 16th century via the Latin adjective veteranus (old), a derivative of vetus (old).

The word for an animal doctor dates back to the mid-17th century and comes from the Latin adjective veterinarius (pertaining to cattle or beasts of burden), which in turn comes from veterinum, the noun for such an animal.

What’s the connection?

Veterinum, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is “perhaps derived from vetus” (old). Connecting the two notions, Chambers says veterinum probably referred to “a beast one year old; possibly also, experienced, or used to work as a draft animal in plowing or pulling.”

Another source, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, speculates that “perhaps” the connection with vetus was “as if the orig. ref. was to animals past work.”

If all this is true, it may be that the original veterinarians got the name because they treated veteran—that is, old or experienced—animals.

One final aside. In case you’re interested, we wrote a post six years ago about the use of “vet” to mean examine or check out. Yes, there’s a connection.

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