Last week’s headlines were full of bovine references. I’m not talking about the usual bull: This was all about a fake cow with hundreds of thousands of (presumably) real Twitter followers—a cowfluencer, you might say—that’s being sued by a sitting U.S. congressman.
The cow in question (1,200 followers on March 18, 634,000 followers on March 24):
The congressman (404,000 followers):
Yes, Devin Nunes of California’s Central Valley, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, is suing Twitter over a parody account that tweets hashtags like #TheMooovement and #ProtectTheHerd and mocks the “udderly worthless” congressman, who owns a dairy farm not in his home county, as he often boasts, but in far-off Iowa. Nunes is also suing a parody account called Devin Nunes’ Mom and a couple of non-anonymous accounts, all of which he claims “repeatedly tweeted and retweeted abusive and hateful content” about him. He’s asking for $250 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. Because Nunes is a public figure, the suits have little chance of succeeding, but they’ll keep a herd of lawyers busy for a while.
Headline writers had a field day—or was it a pasture day?—with cow-related headlines: “How Now, Defamatory Cow?”, “Jimmy Kimmel Milks Devin Nunes’ Cow for Late-Night Comedy,” “Devin Nunes Is Having a Cow.” (More about “how now” and “have a cow” in a bit.) At a “release the Trump-Russia report” demonstration in Washington Saturday evening, some people in the crowd wore cow costumes.
Outside the White House tonight: pic.twitter.com/h6i5oq1PIe— Olivia Nuzzi (@Olivianuzzi) March 23, 2019
But enough about current events. My own interest is in the little word at the center of the beef: cow.
It’s an ancient word, tracing its roots to Old English cu, “the female of a bovine animal.” Centuries later cow also entered English as a verb: “to intimidate or overawe.” (Shakespeare may have been the first to use it in this sense, in Macbeth.) Not only does the verb to cow have no etymological kinship to the noun cow – the verb “perhaps” comes from Old Norse kúga “to cow, force, tyrannize over,” according to the OED – but neither of the cows is related to cower (“to crouch in timidity,” probably from a different Scandinavian source such as Swedish kura or Danish kure, “to squat”) or to coward (“a person who displays ignoble fear in the face of danger,” from Old French coart). English: what a language!
Elsie the cow was developed as a mascot for the Borden Dairy Company in 1936. The company had been founded in 1837 in Connecticut; it has been defunct since 2001. It was best known for condensed milk and Elmer’s Glue (the latter of which survives as a brand).
Cow shows up in many English idioms. A cow college (attested from 1910) is U.S. slang for an agricultural college. A cow chip is a pile of dried cow dung tossed, Frisbee-style, in cow-chip-throwing contests. (The first World Championship Cow Chip Throw was held in Beaver, Oklahoma, in 1970.) A cash cow is a business that generates steady profits, much as a cow produces milk; I was surprised to see that the OED’s earliest citation for the phrase is a 1975 article in Forbes.
“Black cow” is U.S. slang for a root beer or Coke float or an alcoholic version made with Kahlúa, half-and-half, and Coke. (“Drink your big black cow/and get out of here” – Steely Dan, 1977.) In the UK, Black Cow is a brand of vodka made from whey, “the problem child of the dairy industry.”
The Laughing Cow (La vache qui rit) is a brand of processed cheeses made by Fromageries Bel since 1865. Until I researched the name, I’d never noticed that the cow’s earrings resemble the boxes the cheese comes in. It’s an example of the Droste effect.
“How now, brown cow” is an elocution exercise that teaches the proper pronunciation of rounded vowels. It’s been used by teachers since at least 1926.
Brown Cow yogurt, “the original cream-top yogurt,” has been made by Brown Cow Farm since 1975. The company was founded in Ithaca, New York, moved to California in 1989, and was bought by Stonyfield Farm (which was largely owned by global dairy giant Danone) in 2003; it’s now headquartered in Fort Worth. The brand is named after a real brown cow, Lily.
“Purple cow” was coined by Gelett Burgess (1876-1951), an instructor of topographical drawing at UC Berkeley (my alma mater!) who also dabbled in light verse. After he left Cal in some disgrace (water fountains, vandalism), he started a humor magazine, The Lark, in which he published, in 1895, “The Purple Cow: Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who's Quite Remarkable, at Least.” This is the poem in its entirety:
I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!
The verse was a huge success, and Burgess became quite sick of it. In the April 1, 1897, issue of The Lark he published a “Confession: and a Portrait Too, Upon a Background that I Rue”:
Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”—
I’m Sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I’ll Kill you if you Quote it!
Seth Godin’s best-selling business book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, first published in 2006, tells readers to “be a purple cow in a world of monochromatic Holsteins.” (Except that Holsteins aren’t monochromatic.) A purple cow is also a float made with Welch’s grape juice and vanilla ice cream.
“To have a cow” is North American slang for “to lose one’s composure in a fit of anger.” The analogy is supposedly to the pain of calving. The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1959 article in the Denton (Texas) Record-Courier (“He'd have a cow if he knew I watched 77 Sunset Strip”), but a discussion on the English language and usage Stack Exchange board notes that Gertrude Stein used the phrase—if not necessarily with its current idiomatic meaning—in 1926, in a “A Book Concluding With As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story.” Be sure to read the entire discussion for some erudite digressions.
You, however, are probably thinking a different cultural touchpoint.