Oxen, cows work way into the language

Barry Wood

My sources inform me that Old Macdonald had a farm, and on this farm he had a cow, a pig, a sheep and a goat.

Apparently he also had a horse, a chicken, a duck and a goose, but I've already written about those.

Yes, it's time for more words and expressions drawn from the fertile field of animal husbandry (no, that isn't about bestiality).

Let's start with the bovine family. To refer to people as "bovine" is to suggest they have oxlike qualities, like being "slow, dull, stupid, stolid."

The value of oxen is in their strength, so to call someone "as strong as an ox" is a compliment. However, to call a person "a dumb ox" is probably redundant as well as unkind.

Other oxen contributions to our language include "oxblood," a deep red; "oxbow," the distinctive shape of part of a yoke applied to a similar bend in a river or the land within the bend; "oxeye" for daisies and other flowering plants; and "oxford," a type of shoe or fabric.

The origin of "Oxford," as in the town, the school and the Oxford English Dictionary, the ultimate authority on word origins, is, quite simply, "a place where oxen forded the river."

The mature female of the cattle crowd is called a "cow." To "have a cow," a slang expression popularized by animated TV character Bart Simpson, means "to become very agitated or angry."

For the most part, cows are docile creatures content to stay in one place, which is why it's probably going to be a long wait "till the cows come home."

However, the verb "to cow," meaning "to intimidate," is actually akin to the word "cower." And "coward" is from the Latin root for "tail," and comes to us from Middle English and Old French, where it meant, literally, "with tail between the legs."

But the importance of the cow in U.S. westward expansion is reflected in a herd of terms like "cowboy," "cowgirl," "cowman," "cowhand," "cowpoke," "cowpuncher" and "cow town."

That last one can be used informally for any town "regarded as being dull, unsophisticated, etc." In a similar vein, a "cow college" is not only an agricultural school but also can be any small, little-known college in a rural area.

We also have the "cowbird," so named because it was often seen near cattle; plants like "cowslips," "cow parsley," "cow parsnips" and "cowpeas"; and "cowlick," that unruly batch of hair whose name comes from the idea that it "looks as if it had been licked by a cow."

From cows we get milk, and from the process of obtaining it we get the verb "to milk," meaning to draw out or exploit, as in "milk it for all it's worth."

We also have "milk run," a slang term for "a routine mission that is not expected to be dangerous"; "milksop," for "a man seen as timid, ineffectual, effeminate, etc."; and the sound advice not to "cry over spilt milk."

And let's not forget our galactic neighborhood, the "Milky Way."

I'm running out of space, so I'll leave the male side of the cattle barn for next week, and that's no bull.

Barry Wood is a senior copy editor for the Register Star. Contact him at or write to Wood on Words, Rockford Register Star, 99 E. State St., Rockford, IL 61104.