One strong indication of cows’ value to society is their presence in our everyday language. Cow and bull references show up in a number of common English expressions. Here are seven bovine-related phrases you probably hear on a regular basis:
1. Don’t have a cow!
Telling someone not to have a cow is essentially saying, “Calm down” or “Don’t overreact.” Although Bart Simpson made the exclamation popular, it had earlier media appearances in Hill Street Blues and Sixteen Candles. Many believe that the expression is an instruction for a human not to give birth to a cow. Considering that calves are 75 pounds at birth, that would certainly cause some undue stress.
For the record, contrary to the phrase’s connotation, we think that having a cow is a great idea (maybe via adoption rather than birth, however), provided you have the love and resources to care for one.
2. ‘Til the cows come home
Indicating that you’ll be waiting a long time, the expression dates back to at least the early 1800s when it first appeared in print.
Because many cows won’t return to the barn until the morning when it is time for milking, in that sense, an event going “until the cows come home” will last for hours on end. In Scotland, however, where the phrase is speculated to have started, cows will graze all summer until the grass disappears, suggesting an even longer period of time.
3. Like a bull in a china shop
Typically used to describe a clumsy or destructive person, this idiom sure paints a picture. Back in the early 1800s when the expression began appearing, people would bring their cattle to open markets. Whether an actual bull-related incident spawned this saying, however, is unclear.
In this case, it seems like bulls may be getting a bad rap. In 1940, Jim Moran brought a bull into a china shop as a publicity stunt, but the bull destroyed nothing. Mythbusters attempted a similar experiment and found that the bulls were surprisingly respectful of the fine china.
4. Cash cow
Today a cash cow means a successful and stable source of income. The idea is that a cow provides milk on a daily basis, a resource that will always be in demand regardless of the economy.
The phrase is originally credited to business consultant Peter Drucker. He advised followers to pay attention to investments that can continue to earn profits without much work even when there is no growth in the market.
5. Take the bull by the horns
The expression, which means to confidently address a situation head on, appears to have a pretty literal origination. Ranchers who needed to control a bull could not safely grab any other part of the bull to get the job done – they’d have to build up the courage and grab the bull’s horns to get the upper hand.
Seems a little rough, but at least these ranchers weren’t painfully de-horning their cattle like some modern farmers today.
6. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
This idiom began as a rhetorical question to point out that it is difficult for someone to sell something after they’ve been giving it away.
Over time, however, it has come to predominately be a gendered criticism for premarital sex. In other words, “Why would he bother marrying you if you’re already sleeping with him?” Let’s cut out this sexist, dated nonsense… and leave the cows out of it!
Did you know that cows excrete an average of 60 pounds of poop each day? While bullshit can literally refer to the clearly plentiful cow patties, English speakers commonly use the expression to call something emphatically false or trivial.
There are a lot of theories on the origin of the expression. Some say it is rooted in words that sound like “bull” but have no relation to the animal. Others suspect that soldiers mocking generals’ orders conceived the term. Another idea points to Obadiah Bull, an Irish lawyer who spoke nonsense. Whatever the truth is, that just means that other theories are – appropriately – just bullshit.
What’s with all the cow content? One wily Care2 member, Bessie the Holstein, decided cows were underrepresented and started a petition. She officially staged a successful takeover of our offices, and has redubbed us “CareMoo.”