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The peculiar history of cows in the OED

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has hundreds of words that relate to cows. For most English speakers, the idea that anyone would need so many words for one specific animal probably seems absurd. Especially cows. Perhaps it’s their mysterious ubiquity throughout children’s books and TV shows or just the dull empty look in their eyes, but it’s easy to assume, as a casual observer, that there really isn’t much going on there.

On a linguistic front, however, you’d be quite mistaken. Here is just a small taste of the strange and fascinating world of cow terminology:

The word slop originally referred to the magical theft of cow milk

Believe it or not, the oldest recorded use of the noun slop appears in a Middle English text called Handlyng Synne written around 1303. In it, Robert of Brunne, a Gilbertine monk, relates how a witch enchants a bag called a slop, causing it to rise into the air and ‘go, and sokun ky’ (go and suck a cow). There appears to be no other evidence for this sense in English other than from this text, although the word occurs more widely in Middle English (and beyond) denoting various loose or baggy items of clothing.

The OED has no fewer than fourteen terms for cow feces

From dung to clat to mis, cow excrement has proven fertile in more ways than one. Besides being something that needed to be quickly and easily referred to when walking out in the pastures, cow dung was frequently mixed with other substances or used all by itself in a wide array of situations—not just as fertilizer, but also as fuel, as building material, and even (troublingly enough) as medicine. All-flower water was the deeply deceptive name for ‘a preparation made from the urine or dung of cows… used as a remedy for various medical complaints.’

Cows are not ‘cow-hearted’

Because of the orthographic similarity between them, you’d be forgiven for assuming that cow and coward shared the same etymological origin. In fact, between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, it was not uncommon to use the word cow-hearted to describe someone as ‘faint-hearted, timorous, cowardly.’

The words couldn’t be more distantly related though. Cow is ultimately Germanic and has been part of English even in its earliest forms—the OED’s first citation is from a text written before the year 800 CE. Coward, by contrast, appears five centuries later, coming from the Old French word for ‘tail’. There are a couple of theories about this reference—that it refers to the act of ‘turning tail’ or that it might have come from the word for a hare, a creature likely to have been named for its fluffy tail and also much better known for being ‘faint-hearted’ and ‘timorous’ than the cow.

Sometimes, cows just need to lie down

Now obsolete, the word milting once referred quite simply to ‘the sudden lying down of an ox, cow, etc.’ Apparently this was enough of a problem, especially when the animal in question was hitched to a plough or a cart, that people came  up with a word for the phenomenon. It’s also possible that this kind of sudden bovine collapse was related to a disease of the milt, or spleen.

Many cow terms are not as old as you think

One might imagine that most commonplace references to cows in English are centuries old, handed down from generation to generation like a farmhouse or a secret cheesecake recipe. In fact, despite the considerably reduced role that agriculture generally and cows specifically played in everyday twentieth century life, many of the phrases we use today originated during this time.

The term sacred cow, meaning something that is held to be above criticism, has only been around for 100 years or so, and the mild expletive holy cow appears to have been popularized in New York in the 1920s. Similarly, to have a cow and the term cash cow only came into use in the fifties and seventies, respectively. Perhaps most unexpectedly of all, that apocryphal American form of mischief-making known as cow tipping was never written about until 1983.

Despite everything, English has no simple word for what a cow is

When, as small children, we are taught about pigs and sheep and various other barnyard animals, the cow is usually one of the first mentioned. Cows ‘go moo’ (or boo or proo, depending on whom you ask). Very rarely do we stop and think about the fact that cows are not, technically speaking, a species. They’re only the female half. English lets us distinguish a cow with crooked horns (a crummie) from a cow without them (a doddy or a moiley); reddish cows (roans) from white-faced cows (baldies); cows that have never had calves (heifers) from cows that have (calvers) from cows that no longer can (yelds). But trying to talk about just one of these creatures without specifying its sex is surprisingly difficult.

In the plural, we can say that they’re cattle (except when cattle is used to mean livestock generally). But the singular is messier. The word ox is one candidate, as it originally meant ‘a cow, a bull’, but now is more often specified to a ‘castrated adult male of this animal.’ Heifer is also sometimes used as a sex-neutral term, though this too is not strictly correct. Some may accuse such a position of pedantry, noting that the use of cow to refer to the species has grown so pervasive as to have changed its meaning, but that doesn’t mean the phrase ‘male cow’ is going to make scientific sense any time soon.

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