Idiom question

Peter A. McGraw pmcgraw at LINFIELD.EDU
Sat Jan 22 01:08:41 UTC 2000

--On Fri, Jan 21, 2000 3:40 PM -0800 "A. Vine" <avine at ENG.SUN.COM> wrote:

> "Peter A. McGraw" wrote:
I would never call a bull
>> or a steer a "cow," and I would be secretly amused to hear anyone
>> actually use the phrase "male cow."  For me, the only word available to
>> encompass both bull and cow is "bovine," or the collective "cattle."  I
>> might pass a pasture and say, "Look at the cows," not paying attention
>> to whether there were also a couple of bulls or steers there.  But if I
>> did pay attention, I would probably add something like, "Oh, there's a
>> bull [or a couple of steers], too."  A cow is already marked as female;
>> a heifer is further marked as young and female.

And Andrea replied:

> So, your generic term for the animal is "bovine"?  If you were trying to
> talk about the animal in generic terms, where it made no sense to use the
> plural/collective "cattle", you would always use "bovine"?  And you
> wouldn't feel like you sounded pretentious?
> Anyway, my point is not that urban folk don't know the difference between
> a cow, heifer, bull, and steer.  It's that there is no need for a
> distinction when they use "cow".  And "bovine" sounds scientific,
> over-educated, or affected.  "Look, there's a computer box with a bovine
> print!"  "I have a cream pitcher in the shape of a bovine." "What sound
> does a bovine make?"
> Andrea

No, I don't use "bovine" in colloquial speech, any more than I use
"siblings" for both brothers and sisters, except in highly formal contexts
or when there's just no way to avoid it and still say what I mean.  But
that doesn't mean a better word exists.  For me there simply is no
colloquial word that encompasses cows, bulls and steers the way "sheep"
encompasses both rams and ewes.  I think of a heifer as a kind of cow, but
I don't think (or speak) of a bull as a kind of cow.  I would probably use
"cow" in the examples you give above, but in doing so, I would be choosing
to name the female of the species in the absence of a word that would
encompass the male as well.


                               Peter A. McGraw
                   Linfield College   *   McMinnville, OR
                            pmcgraw at

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