Ever have a question that you just don’t have an answer for? Usually that’s frustrating, right? I had a question for years that nobody could answer. It was tricky because I couldn’t tell people if they answered the question correctly, but I certainly knew if they answered it incorrectly. It became a game and was so fun that I actually stopped looking for an answer for awhile. It’s not a simple question to ask, so bear with me. It is best to ask this question at a bar or other event where alcohol is served. It is also fun to ask the Cliff Clavin smarty pants person in your group. Go ahead and digest the clever Cheers! reference then read on.
“What do you call a male moose?” Answer: “Bull”
“What do you call a female moose?” Answer: “Cow”
“What do you call male buffalo?” Answer: “Bull”
“What do you call a female buffalo?” Answer: “Cow”
“Where does the milk most people drink come from?” Answer: “Cow” Don’t let smarty pants say goat.
“OK, a cow. Milk comes from a cow. So a cow what?” This is the part where your victim . . . I mean friend . . . will look at you over their drink and say. “A cow . . . cow . . . you know . . . horns . . . tail . . . a cow.”
You almost have them. “OK, then what is the male counterpart of the cow?”
“A bull,” will be the inevitable answer. Unless your smarty pants friend claims that a steer can be a male counterpart. He or she will be technically right, but the cow and steer will only be friends since the steer had to be castrated in order to achieve steer and friend zone status.
“So we have established that we have a cow and a bull,” you can say. Here comes the good part. “But a bull and cow what?” Briefly explain that a male buffalo is a bull and female buffalo is cow and those words designate the biological sex of the animal. “What is the actual name of the animal that gives us milk . . . it can’t be cow, because that only designates sex . . . what is it called?”
At that point the seed has been planted. A couple of things might happen. Your friend could call you a bad name and another round is ordered or they might simply order another round. Regardless, rest assured that they will think about it every time they pour a bowl of breakfast cereal. I have had people come up to me literally years after I mentioned it to them and discuss how they have wondered about the answer.
Several answers come up. Some will argue that the specific breed names are the actual species of the different cow-like animals. I shoot that down quickly . . . a Dachshund and a Husky and a Schnauzer are all dogs . . . right? Others quickly state they are bovines . . . this answer usually comes from the smarty pants. Close but no cigar. Bovine is a term for the family or subfamily (in that Latin animal naming system that we learn in high school then promptly forget) that our cows belong to with lots of other cow-like beasties who actually have names. In case you are wondering, I have done the research on this. I am not going to cite any of it because this is not a term paper and you can Google just like I can if you really want to.
A friend and I came up with an answer that sounded right enough that I accepted it for a little while until I stumble onto some information. We thought that our cow and bull might be oxen. That sounded right enough that some smarty pants even bought it . . . of course I always offered the answer as a possibility, not a certainty. According to my source the terms ‘ox’ and ‘oxen’ might have originally been used as overall names for these animals, but now is used specifically for draft breeds of the animals.
So one day, I got tired of wondering and decided to look it up. This was about 15 years ago when the internet wasn’t as friendly (at least to me) as it is now. I didn’t find much then. Then about two years ago after a discussion with a friend I went to Google, or as I call it “The Box of All Knowledge”, and there it was. Ever really, really looked for something and then when you find it you kind of go “Huh”? Somehow you kind of regret finding the answer because wondering was much more fun. That’s kind of how this is . . . with a little bit of a twist.
Seems that our milk-giving cow and her boyfriend the bull are victims of a plurale tantum which is a word that only exists in the plural . . . you know like scissors or trousers or pants. Our beasties are cattle. That’s right . . . cattle. You can have “three cattle” or “a lot of cattle” but you can’t have “one cattle”. Kind of a let down, huh? If you want to talk about a specific individual then can use specific sex-related terms like “bull” and “cow” or “heifer”, “steer” and such. So there is a little twist in the end here that I find deliciously ironic. The people who answered “cow” and “bull” all these years are technically correct. I mean if there is no singular of “cattle” and we have to use sex-related terms then the answer to my question was “cow”. They just didn’t know they were right. So people have been losing sleep for years for nothing. I love irony.
OK, so I will leave you a citation, sort of. Don’t judge the Wikipedia. Wikipedia is great for some things, especially if you’re not too concerned about things like truth. Just kidding. The citations on this entry are solid.
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