[Ads-l] "Holy Cow"

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Dec 11 15:26:57 EST 2017

I recently updated a blog-post on "Holy cow" with a few early examples.


My original post<https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2014/05/holy-cow-hinduism-and-baseball.html> included 19th century British references to stories in which people in India were said to "swear by the holy cow".  It's not clear whether those accounts are true or fictional, and they do not suggest the existence of the expression in English.

The earliest apparent reference to the expression I found was 1905.

"A lover of the cow writes to this column to protest against a certain variety of Hindoo oath having to do with the vain use of the name of the milk producer.  There is the profane exclamations, “holy cow!” and, “By the stomach of the eternal cow!”  These are Hindoo cuss words of great fierceness and antiquity and probably correspond to the American farmer’s hostile invective, “by hen.”  Then there’s grandma’s blasphemy in times of great stress:

“Cat’s foot!”

Evidently the mind needs some familiar figure from which to start explosively when things go wrong.  Eugene Field’s favorite “by the dog” should not be forgotten in this connection for it is often very soothing."

Minneapolis Journal, November 24, 1905.

The next earliest baseball references I had seen were from Barry's website<https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/holy_cow_yankee_announcer_phil_rizzuto_catchphrase> from March 1913 and June 1914, with reference to a player named Peters and Mullen, respectively.

My additions to the post includes an earlier, two-panel bowling cartoon from 1909.  In the first panel, Mr. Fodder wonders whether the bowler he is watching is using a real cannon ball or not.  In the second panel, Mr. Fodder's hand is crushed by the ball as it rolls up the return rack - "Holy Cow Jeewhillikins! By gosh, you win!" Buffalo Enquirer, August 13, 1909, page 13.

I also added a couple slightly earlier examples related to the players named Peters and Mullen, from February 1913 and May 1913, respectively.

“Holy Cow” Peters, alias “Rube,”  put in an appearance this afternoon and was up to his old tricks again,  enticing Billie Burke into the shower bath for a little liquid  greeting.

Sacramento Union (California), February 28, 1913, page 9.

I read this as suggesting that he had his nickname already the season before.  Peters had started the previous (1912) season with the Chicago White Sox , before finishing it with Sacramento, so it is possible that "Holy Cow" was used in the major leagues as early as 1912.

[When he was out with an injury] the manager's [Charlie Mullen] smiling face and 'Holy Cow' were missing around the initial sack [(first base)].

Lincoln Star (Nebraska), May 10, 1913, page 5.

Charlie Mullen started the 1914 season with Lincoln and finished it with the Yankees.  Assuming he brought "Holy Cow" with him to New York, Yankees fans would have heard "Holy Cow" at the Polo Grounds three years before Phil Rizzuto was born.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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