Cushy cow (1805?)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Mon Apr 4 03:29:02 UTC 2005

I have no idea if this has anything to do with the origin of "cushy"
('easy, comfortable'), but there's an old nursery rhyme that goes:

Cushy cow, bonny, let down thy milk,
And I will give thee a gown of silk;
A gown of silk and a silver tee,
If thou wilt let down thy milk to me.
(Iona & Peter Opie, _Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book_, OUP 1955, p. 75)

A variation appears in Louisa May Alcott's _Little Men_ (1871):

Cushy cow, bonny, let down your milk,
Let down your milk to me,
And I will give you a gown of silk,
A gown of silk and a silver tee.

According to John Goldthwaite's _The Natural History of Make-Believe_, the
rhyme first appeared in Tabart's _Songs for the Nursery_ in 1805:

"Cushy" as a coaxing word (or nickname) for cows isn't listed in the OED,
though the entry for "milk-giving" has this cite:

1858 R. S. SURTEES Ask Mamma (1904) xxx. 156 The loss of one nice quiet
milk-giving cushy cow.

Another "cushy cow" cite from Making of America:

1857 _Harper's Mag._  May 848/2 The American horse has his four feet and
appropriate tail; the indigenous cow hath udders, and, like the cushy cow
Bonny of the Homer of the nursery, lets down her milk.

This 1897 _American Anthropologist_ article is informative:

The Language Used in Talking to Domestic Animals
H. Carrington Bolton
_American Anthropologist_ Vol. 10, No. 3 (Mar. 1897), p. 65

"Cusha, cusha, cusha, calling
Ere the early dews were falling."
(The High Tide.)
Jean Ingelow's familiar lines embody a call to cows in the fields
prevalent in Scotland; it also obtained in Lincolnshire as early as 1571.
It is sometimes used in combination as cushy-cow, and has given rise to a
term of endearment, cush-love. It is found in England as cushie, and in
Ulster County, N.Y. as cush, (pronounced koosh.) Philologists find the
root of this word in the Icelandic kusa, kussa, or kusla, to address a cow

[Also reprinted in: New York Times, May 16, 1897, p. 23]

--Ben Zimmer

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