Bull and Cow and Other Bovine Terms

By Mark Nichol

The noun (and adjective) bovine, from the Latin term bos by way of the French word bovin, is the scientific word for cattle and related animals; it is one of several words in various languages that is cognate with cow, as both words apparently stem from a proto-Indo-European word imitative of mooing. (In allusion to the unintelligent, slow-moving characteristics of cattle, it is also applied to slow, stupid human behavior.)

From bovine we also get beef (from Old French buef), which usually refers in general usage to the meat of cattle used as food, but it also applies to adult cattle; the plural beefs has overtaken the original beeves. Use of the word beef has extended to the idea of “complaint” (perhaps based on the griping of military personnel about their beef rations) and to the notions of brawniness (the adjective beefy) and adding strength (the idiom “beefing up”).

Beefsteak refers to a particular cut of beef, and Beefeater is another designation for the Yeoman Warders, traditional guards of the Tower of London, which originated as a nickname alluding to the rations of beef and beef broth they consumed.

Bull, from the Old English word bula, refers to male specimens of cattle (especially those not deprived of reproductive capability) and other large mammals. A bullock is a young or castrated bull. By extension, bull describes a brawny man (and was slang for a police officer) or a person who buys stocks because he or she expects the price to rise or hopes for a rise to occur; to bull is to act forcefully or violently, and the word is the first element of a compound referring obliquely to excrement and describing speech that is boastful, foolish, or misleading.

Cattle itself is ultimately from the Medieval Latin noun capitale, meaning “property” or “stock,” by way of the Old French term chattel; it is cognate with capital in the sense of “assets” or “stock” and with chattel, meaning “property.”

Cow, which technically describes adult females of various large animal species, including cattle, but is used popularly to refer to cattle of either gender, stems from Old English but, as mentioned earlier, is cognate with a variety of words from other languages that pertain to cattle.

Ox (the word is from the Old English oxa) refers to male cattle bred as work animals (usually draft animals, meaning that they pull wagons or other vehicles) rather than as a source of beef; the plural is oxen. A steer is a young bull or ox, though in American English usage it designates any male beef cattle; the word comes from the Old English term steor, meaning “bull.”

Two other terms associated with cattle are calf (plural calves), from the Old English word cealf, meaning “young cow” (of either gender), and heifer, from the Old English word heahfore, which refers to a young (female) cow, especially one that has not yet borne a calf. The verb calve refers not only to giving birth to a calf but also, by extension, to the separation of a small piece of ice from a glacier or other mass. (Calf, in the sense of the fleshy part of the lower leg, may be a distant relative.)

The slang term dogie, used by cowboys but of unknown origin, refers to an orphaned calf. Speaking of cowboys, the word cowboy, as well as cowhand, cowherd, cowpoke, and cowpuncher (the latter two words derived from the notion of prodding cattle), refers to one who tends cattle. The idea of cowboys as spirited (perhaps inspired by the behavior of cowboy characters in western films and television programs) gave rise in the late twentieth century to the use of cowboy to denote aggression or recklessness. Cowman generally describes a cattle rancher rather than those he employs.

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7 Responses to “Bull and Cow and Other Bovine Terms”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Beefsteak” in one of those words that is identical in both English and German, disregarding capitalization. There is a long list, but here are some of them: Gold, Ring, Bank, Banker, Gang, model, ideal, normal, sang, sexy, Arm, Hand, Finger, Band (many meanings), orange and Orange, Pearl, Golf, Radio, Visa, Whiskey (adopted into German from Scottish)…, and lots of very close ones like Kamera, Korps, Kopie, Afrika, Amerika, Foto (photo), Fotografie, Phantasie, Englisch, Jugoslavia, Jemen, Russland, Russisch, Australien (Australia)…

    Then there are a lot of words that are “false cognates”: links, Mist, Gift, Geld, Grad, Hang, Rang, Test, Backe, Handel…, because they mean different things in the two languages.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I can’t understand why some people get twisted around the axle of the neutral word “chairman”.
    The Ironman triathlons are usually for both men and women, and in baseball and softball, there are 1st basemen, 2nd basemen, 3rd basemen no matter who is playing. In basketball, there is the man-to-man defense, and also a “post man” or two, no matter who is playing. Ice hockey has a left wingman and a right wingman, and two defensemen, no matter who is playing, and you can have a wingman in basketball, too, especially on the fast break.
    In the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, pilots have wingmen, even it some of the pilots are women. (Coast Guard patrol planes and helicopters usually fly alone). Two pilots in two planes are mutual wingmen, and they guard each other’s “tails”, even if female pilots and airmen are involved.
    In the armed services, “Airman” is both a rank, a position, and a generic term, though “aviator” is also available. Sometimes this one is used only to refer to officers such as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, radar officers, and ECM officers. In any case, there are airmen of one kind or another in the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard. Also, in the Air Force, someone could have the rank of “airman” and do anything at all, such as being a security policeman, computer operator, telecommunications specialist, medical assistant, or an assistant to a chaplain.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In this context, “man” is short for “human being”, and so females, males, and nonsexuals are all included. Hence we have the following: airman, businessman (though businesswoman is available), cattleman, chairman. craftsman, draftsman, fireman, hospitalman (an official job classification in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard), ironman, mailman, milkman, policeman (though policewoman is available), salesman (though saleswoman is available), seaman (a rank in the Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine), tradesman, utility man, woodsman, workman, yachtsman,…
    Also a tailor could be of either sex, though seamstress is available, and likewise postmaster, though postmistress is available.
    In German, “die Krankenschwester” is obviously a female nurse, and a male nurse is “der Pfleger”. Evening things out in length and syllables, “die Pflegerin” is also a female nurse. These two words come from the verb “pflegen” = “to take care of”.

    In the nautical service, the classifications of “hospital corpsman” and “pharmacist’s mate” were combined into “hospitalman”, though women do these jobs as well as men.

  • Dale A. Wood

    A much more common word than “cowman” is “cattleman”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    You need to look into the interesting German words “der Bulle” and “der Stier”. Very interesting in this context.

  • Gregorty Bryce

    >>Cow, which technically describes adult females of various large animal species, including cattle, but is used popularly to refer to cattle of either gender….<<

    It strikes me as odd to use "gender" in reference to cattle.

    From Dictionary.com:
    GENDER: «either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated by social and cultural roles and behavior:
    the feminine gender. Compare sex (def 1).»

    SEX: «either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated with reference to the reproductive functions. »

  • Robert D LaMoreaux

    The tv show America’s Secret Slang (s1 e5) on History channel gave the roots of the term dogie as being from Gaelic and brought over by Irish immigrants. They said it came from DO-THOIGTHE, meaning sick calf.

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