Today I Discovered Cows Aren't Actually Called Cows

Who are you calling a cow? Image: Getty

Everyone knows what a cow is, right? But did you know that they're not actually called "cows"? The term is purely colloquial, and not the proper term for the species at all.

You may have seen the news going around recently about a giant cow named Knickers who, with his mammoth size, has quickly become Australia's favourite cow. Only, because this is the internet and no one can just enjoy something fun, you may have seen a few pedantic commenters pointing out that Knickers is not, in fact, a cow. So what is he, then?

The species most people would refer to as a cow is actually correctly called "cattle". Yup that's the name of the animal. However like with other farm animals, there are a whole lot of specific naming conventions for different types of cattle. So a cow isn't actually everything that moos: technically it only refers to the females, and even more specifically females who have had a calf.

The males are called bulls, though castrated males are often called steers - which is what Knickers is if you want to be most correct. Another common term, heifer, is used for young females before they have calved.

As though that's not confusing enough, there's a whole heap of other terms that vary based on the region and the type of farming being done. One of the biggest divergent names is the ox: referring to cattle that are used for riding, ploughing or as a draught animal. In Australia and a few other regions, oxen are more commonly referred to as bullocks.

Congratulations, you're now armed with at least a partial knowledge of cattle etymology: But that doesn't mean you're allowed to be a pedant about it. Everyone knows what a cow is, so let's just call it that.


    Isn’t ‘cattle’ a plural though? Is it correct to say “there’s a cattle standing all alone in a field”?

    What’s the singular version? And if there isn’t one, why not?

      It's plural only, yes! I suppose if you're addressing one singularly you're expected to know if it's a cow, bull, steer, ox or otherwise.
      Summary: Cattle doesn’t have a singular form, aside from the technical term head of cattle. There isn’t a single word that means specifically a single cattle of unstated gender and age. As such, even though it’s technically inaccurate, cow is generally used in informal situations as the singular form of cattle.
      You could also use "a bovine", but that's like calling a cat a feline. It's true but a bit general and weirdly formal.

        Was going to mention bovines, but a cursory google search suggested that it might refer to far more than just cows. Goats are in the same bovidae family as cows and ox for example. Courtesy of Merriam-Webster dictionary:

        Bovine comes from the Latin word for "cow", though the biological family called the Bovidae actually includes not only cows and oxen but also goats, sheep, bison, and buffalo.

        The things you learn...

      English used to have a word for a single head of cattle. Sadly it's archaic so people will silently stare at you if you use it now.

      A cow or other domestic bovine animal. Archaic
      [before 900; Middle English net(e), Old English nēat, c. Old Frisian nāt, naet, Dutch noot, Old High German nōz, Old Norse naut]

      "A beeves is a neat, but not all neat were beeves"

        Your last sentence sums up why I don't think neat is right: because you could use it to describe a sheep. "Beeve" captures the meaning: an individual Bos taurus.

    "Cattle" derives from "chattel" and meant "owned" i.e. livestock of whatever species, it can still be used this way. Sure, it is often used to mean Bos taurus but so is "cow", which is the word we started out trying to improve on. If you're looking for an unambiguously correct word to use, and don't mind going a little archaic, it's "beeve", from the same root as "beef".

    Actually Steers are only yearlings to two years old and lost their testes, worked out by the teeth, heifers much the same. Cows are any female who has given birth. Steers over 2 years old are generally referred to as BULLOCKS or if they still have their testes the are Bulls.

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