on (not) having a cow

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Jan 22 00:26:25 UTC 2000

This is quite interesting to me, and I'm sure to a fellow ADSer, Steve
Kleinedler--the two of us having just collaborated on a paper at the recent
LSA running concurrently with the ADS meetings at the Palmer House.  The
paper was on quasi-generic 'he' and 'man', and it concluded with an
argument that the closest parallel for the history of 'man' in English is
provided by 'cow'.  This was our punch line:
 As a final point, we thought it worth noting that we have found one
lexical item whose history closely parallels that of man, in that what
started life as a true sex-neutral species label became specialized through
the passage of centuries to denote primarily the animals of the more
culturally salient sex while still marginally preserving the original
generalized species meaning in certain neutralized contexts.  That item is
cow, whose Indo-European ancestor gwo- denoted an ox or other bovine
sex-neutrally, and which only later came to take on the sex-restricted
meaning it has primarily borne since Old English, while still marginally
allowing the quasi-generic use wherein cows may embrace bulls.  This might
explain why it is that we seem fated to go on arguing about the usage and
meaning of he-man language until the cows come home.
It might be added that the 'gwo-' root gave birth to 'bovine' as well as to
'cow'.  Ah, for some Bovinity Divinity...


At 3:40 PM -0800 1/21/00, A. Vine wrote:
>"Peter A. McGraw" wrote:
>> --On Fri, Jan 21, 2000 2:44 PM -0800 "A. Vine" <avine at ENG.SUN.COM> wrote:
>> > Beverly Flanigan wrote:
>> >>
>> >>   The basic problem in this country, of course,
>> >> is that non-rural people no longer know the difference between cows,
>> >> heifers, bulls, and steers!
>> >
>> > I don't think that is the "problem".  The term "cow" is the generic term
>> > for the animal, regardless of sexual status.  If you say "heifer", you're
>> > only talking about a female cow.  If you say "bull" or "steer", you're
>> > only talking about a male cow (with a difference in sterility).  But if
>> > you say "cow", you're not specifying the sex.
>> >
>> Maybe you're not, Andrea, but I certainly am!  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.
>> Peter
>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.
>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?"
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