The Fourth of July found me, like any stereotypical red-blooded American male, in front of a grill cooking meats during the day and in the living room playing Cranium once night set in. The game was going well, in that my team was beating the other two, but then one of the other teams got a trivia question asking “What animal is in the Elmer’s Glue logo?” and my world turned upside-down.
The asked team answered “cow”, to which I helpfully added “duh”. But the asking team said, “No, it’s a bull. Cows are female,” and the asked team all nodded their heads sadly in agreement. I was confused; sure, cow can refer to a specifically female animal, but I speak of cows all the time without knowing their gender. I can’t remember how the rest of the game turned out*, because from that point on, I couldn’t stop thinking about the best word to refer to a single animal of the species Bos primigenius taurus.
A week passed, and I’d pretty much forgotten about the cow question, aside from a subconscious cattle-directed malaise that prevented me from enjoying lolcows or Cow Appreciation Day at Chick-fil-A.
And then, on a lark, I was perusing the blog Starlingford Chronicles, and found this recent post asking the same question that my infuriatingly persistent subconscious was asking. With the question returned to the forefront of my mind, either I had to settle it or it would settle me.
So I went straight to my shelf of grammar books to see how others had settled the question. Alas, it appears that grammar books are now intended for the unlanded elite, containing virtually no information about farm animals. I was surprised to see that even grammar books ignore the plight of the modern farmer. Thus, like the farmer, we must strike out on our own to find the answer. Let’s start by looking at the word cattle.
Cattle, the OED says, comes from Middle English catel, which is an adoption into English of the same word in Old Northern French, which in turn comes from the Latin capitale. This is the same Latin word that gives us Modern English capital; the divergent meanings are the result of a fairly interesting semantic drift.
First cattle referred to any wealth or property, then more specifically in feudal times it referred to “movable” wealth, which at the time was pretty much limited to livestock. By 1500, cattle was almost exclusively used to refer to livestock. Back then, it could refer to any type of livestock or any mixtures of kinds of livestock, and thus we see examples like:
(1a) Is wool thy care? Let not thy cattle go / Where bushes are, where Burs and Thistles grow [Dryden, 1697]
(1b) By cattle, in this act, is to be understood any bull, cow, ox, steer, bullock, heifer, calf, sheep, and lamb, and no other cattle whatever. [UK Parliament, 1741-2]
(1c) […] among all manner of bovine, swinish and feathered cattle. [Carlyle, 1830]
Between then and now, the general livestock meaning lost out to the more specific meaning of a bovine, as in this OED attestation from 1836:
(2) In the usual acceptation of the word [cattle] it is confined to the ox.
Unfortunately, cattle entered the English language strictly as a mass noun, much like its sibling capital**. (Mass nouns, if you aren’t familiar with the term, are words like milk or money that lack a grammatical number and resist being treated as a singular noun, as in the ungrammatical *a money.) Because these words were borrowed into English as mass nouns, they didn’t come with countable versions. That’s not surprising for capital, as it’s not something easily quantized — there isn’t really a unit of capital — but (bovine) cattle has an obvious unit: a single animal.
Why hasn’t cattle been countified then? Well, there’re two common ways of creating a count noun from a mass noun. The simpler is to just use the mass noun into a count noun as-is; this has happened for many people with e-mail, which came from the mass noun mail, but now is often used as a count noun (“I sent an e-mail about that”). It’s also common for food and drink (“I’ll have an orange juice.”) In theory, this could be done for cattle, and it is occasionally. Google shows 460k hits for the phrase “a cattle is”, but most of these look to be from countries or writers for whom English is a second language.
The second method is to create a phrase with an explicit quantity stated for the mass noun. This is pretty common for inherently quantized mass nouns: a grain of rice, a blade of grass, a piece of mail, etc. Cattle does have such a phrase, the technical term head of cattle, but it’s jargonic, generally limited to encyclopedias and agricultural reports.
Neither of the countified versions of cattle have caught on in standard speech. That leaves us to seek out count nouns that are not derived from cattle. Here the problem is either over- or under-specificity. Cow is the word I’ve always used, but technically speaking, cow can denote the female from a range of species, including elephants, alligators, dolphins, whales, and Komodo dragons (if Wikipedia is to be trusted). Bulls are always male and calves always young, even informally, and they also suffer from the same ambiguity in what species they are. There’re a bunch of very specific terms, such as heifer, ox, steer, micky, yearling, or pollard, but using them correctly requires substantially more bovine familiarity than most of us have. And speaking of bovine, even it doesn’t quite work, because technically speaking, bovines aren’t strictly cattle; bison are generally considered bovine as well.
So with all of that out there, what do you do the next time you’re driving down the road and you notice a farm with a lonely Bos primigenius taurus standing on a hillside?
You can go ahead and inform your carmates that “there’s a head of cattle on that hill”, but unless they’re ranchers, they’ll probably think you’re describing a gruesome bovine decapitation. You can squint and try to determine at 50 miles per hour the gender of the animal, or even go for the gold and assess its age and (if female) the number of calves it’s had in order to ensure that you’re calling a heifer a heifer. You can point out the “bovine” to the other humans in the car, but you’ll be being both technically imprecise and strangely formal, so your friends may suspect you of being a robot.
Or you can accept the standard informal usage and mention the cow. Is it technically accurate? Potentially not, although you’ve got around a 50% chance. Unfortunately, all your other options are potentially inaccurate or overly technical. Cow at least has the advantage of being widely accepted as a general term in various dictionaries. And there are even attestations of the technically paradoxical “male cow” and technically redundant “female cow” on the web.
English has a hole here, and it’s up to you how you want to fill it. Unless you’re playing Cranium, of course.
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.
[Update 07/13: Anndra in the comments noted that Scots use the word beast as the genderless singular of cattle. This reminded me that there is a word that is specific to a bovine animal and is genderless and ageless: neat, as in neatfoot oil. Unfortunately, beast is of limited geographical reach, and neat is archaic, although I might try to adopt one or both into my lexicon all the same.]
*: Okay, I can. We lost.
**: Of course, this is in reference to capital meaning to money, wealth, etc., as in capitalism. Capital can be a count noun when it refers to the head of a column or an upper-case letter.