Until the Cows Come home (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Until the Cows Come home"?

The term "until the cows come home" (sometimes written "til the cows come home") means for a long, indefinite amount of time.
Til the Cows Come home (Origin)
This idiom relates to cows returning "home" (i.e., to their milking sheds) in the evening at a slow, plodding pace after a whole day on the pasture. The cows' languid pace and lethargy add to the sense that the day has been long.

Examples of Use:

  • I'm going to be working on this project until the cows come home.
  • You can keep guessing until the cows come home. I'm not going to tell you.
  • The taxis are all booked. I'm afraid we'll be here until the cows come home.
"Until the Cows Come home" originates from the 16th century. It was used in 1593 by one John Eliot, who wrote "Ortho-epia Gallica" (a textbook for learning French):
  • I am tied by the foote till the Cow come home.
Here are two more commonly cited examples from Beaumont and Fletcher's plays "The Scornful Lady" and "The Captain" (both circa 1610):
  • "Kiss till the cow come home."
  • (From "The Scornful Lady")
  • Good morrow! Drink till the cow come home, 'tis all paid boys.
  • (From "The Captain")
Notice that the early versions of the idiom use "cow" instead of "cows." It is likely that "cow" was used as a non-countable noun (like "beef" or "swine"). The authors of these early examples would have had a herd of cows in their mind's eye. Whatever the truth, within 100 years, the plural "cows" was used. The following extract is from a 1738 witty essay called "Polite Conversation" by the Irish author Jonathan Swift:
  •    Miss Notable. I suppose, my lord, you lay longest abed today?
    Lord Smart. Miss, if I had said so, I should have told a fib; I warrant you lay abed till the cows came home: but, miss, shall I cut you a little crust, now my hand is in?
       Miss Notable. If you please, my lord, a bit of undercrust.

Competing Theory

If a cow escapes, it will not return home, like a horse or a dog. Therefore, "until the cows come home" is an indefinitely long time. It effectively means never.

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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