Until the Cows Come Home

Sometimes, we use idioms we don’t even understand the origins of. For example, saying “close, but no cigar” comes from an era where cigars were given as prizes for carnival games. Judging by the way tobacco is now demonized in America, it is clear that this phrase is now obsolete, yet it maintains its presence in our vernacular.

The same goes for “let the cat out of the bag,” which references a con used in medieval marketplaces where merchants would claim to sell pigs in a bag, but when opened an overpriced cat would be revealed instead.  We still use this to reprimand people for revealing a secret.

In Georgia, I got to see the origin of an accepted idiom in front of my face: “Until the cows come home.”

The phrase has been used as early as 1829 to mean “for a long but indefinite time.” The first time I noticed the phenomenon was when winter was approaching and the days were getting shorter. I walked from town to my village, chasing the sun so as not to get scolded for walking at night by my worrisome host family, and I realized I was walking with a herd. All of the village cows were mozying toward the village after a long day of grazing. When I got to my gate, my family’s cows were waiting for me to open it for them. The cows had come home.

The village cow migration

The village cow migration

The ironic part, to me, is that the cows come home around dark, which changes with the seasons but is never later than 10 or 11 pm. So when we say, “Let’s party until the cows come home!” we really mean, “Let’s wrap this up before midnight!”

While we’re on the subject of cows, let me share a random anecdote I thought of a few days ago. When I was maybe ten or eleven, my family visited a quaint lodge for a weekend getaway. We purchased massages and creme brulee room service, and culminated our pretend rich people time with a hot air balloon excursion.

On the road from the hotel to the balloon site, we kept our eyes peeled for deer, a constant threat in Washington State for the well-being of our cars. We warned my father of an approaching animal and as we approached we realized it was not a deer, but a cow. My dad hit his brakes, and without words we shared a collective laugh at the pure absurdity of this “wildlife.” I grew up in a small, rural town, but cows were fenced on ranches and farms, not standing nonchalantly in the middle of the street.

If I knew then that cow-in-the-street would one day be more routine to me than car-in-the-street, I wouldn’t have believed it.

–Kacie Riann

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1 Comment

  1. I feel like “a cow in the street” should become an idiom. Also, that’s very exciting that you got to experience that first hand! I would have been jumping with excitement to tell everyone about it. hahaha

    Reply

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