Dot Wordsworth

Is a cow always a cow?

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I’ve noticed a tendency among townies like me to call all cattle cows (which they feel they must mention in discussing Brexit). You’d think that a cow was an obviously female creature. (Didn’t Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part, shown from 1965, call his wife Else a ‘silly old moo’?) But that doesn’t stop them. Indeed the main character in an American cartoon film called Barnyard (2006) was a cow by the name of Otis with a milk-giving udder. He was reckoned male and wooed a (female) cow called Daisy. This was not presented as any daring exercise in gender fluidity. One critic recommended that parents should take their children to it if they wanted to ‘depress them while making sure they fail biology’.

But what do you call the animal represented by bulls and cows? Once it could have been ox, with oxen standing for ‘cattle’. What was the creature in the stable at Bethlehem, of which Isaiah spoke: ‘The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib’? The Vulgate called it a bos, a bovine of the species that the zoologists later labelled Bos taurus. But oxen came to be limited to castrated male cattle, as did bullock, which originally meant a young bull. Steer also came to mean a young castrated ox.

Farmers speak of one of their herd as a beast, though for the rest of us beast is a variant of animal. Chaucer, in his translation of Boethius, referred to man (homo in Latin) as ‘a reasonable beast’ — a rational animal. When the Oxford English Dictionary reached the letter B in 1887, it remarked: ‘In some parts of England, beast in the singular means spec “horse”, while the plural beasts, beastès, beass means “oxen”.’ I don’t know whether that is still true in those parts.

As for cattle, its history is so intertwined with chattels that the OED treats them as the same word. Cattle originated in the Latin adjective capitale, ‘capital’. So Karl Marx’s book might almost have been called Cattle. Though lawyers speak of a chattel, even they can’t refer to ‘a cattle’. If we do not want to specify sex, we all have to talk of ‘one of the cattle’.