Friday, October 5, 2012


Sometimes I can’t understand how Jerry and I could get to be this age (old) without knowing some of the simplest things.  We have lived our whole lives around cows, from cows jumping over the moon in our babyhood, to cows giving milk in our childhood, to calf-roping and steer riding when we were teenagers old enough to go to rodeos, and the value of good steaks in our adulthood.  So why are we still so confused?
I think my own first personal quest into the unknown was when I was reading a book set in past era, perhaps like in Caldwell, Kansas in the 1880s, and one of the characters in the book used the word “beeves.”  “BEEVES?” I said to myself?  Who besides this character uses the word “Beeves.”

If we pay attention to the dictionary, we will find we should be using it ourselves if we drive past a bunch of steers out on the prairie (or in a pen waiting to go to the market) and comment on what we see.  “Look at the beeves” is perfectly fine.  It is simply the plural of “beef” – although I don’t think this is totally what is being used today; rather, we use “beef” as the plural, too, the same as sheep and sheep, whether it is a single sheep or a flock of sheep.
OK,  beeves to me sounds quaint, and Jerry and I enjoy using it, although we don’t have a lot of occasion to do just that.

This latest foray into cow territory came about because I asked him if a cow, a term I use generically for bovines, male and female, really referred to a female bovine.  In other words, did “cow” function the same as “sow” – that being one would never call a male pig a sow.  If “cow” was used the same way, then I had been using it wrong all these years.  If I saw a herd of bovines in a field, I would have called them cows, and I began to think about it.  Was I wrong?  Jerry wasn’t sure either.
All this ignorance comes because we both were born and raised in a city, and the nearest we ever got to farm animals was at the LA County Fair each year.

Well, it turns out that I have been wrong if I was trying to speak proper English.  A cow actually is a mature female of a bovine animal, but informally it is correct to call a domestic bovine of either sex and any age a cow. 
The problem Jerry and I ran into in trying to be correct is that in trying to get an answer from a dictionary, we end up going around in circles and understanding far less than we thought we did when we started out.  It seems the terms are right, wrong, possible, not possible, and maybe all at the same time, depending on… infinitum.

After our latest skirmish, we think we now understand this:
1)     An adult female bovine that has given birth is called a cow.

2)     A young female bovine that has not given birth is called a heifer.

3)     An adult female that has not given birth is often called a heiferette.
 (This term made me almost roll on the floor laughing!  Imagine!)

4)     A castrated male bovine is a steer

5)     Young bovines are called calves, usually “bull calf” or “heifer calf,” depending on the gender.

6)     And we DO understand beeves, which seems very simple now.

We have not totally got everything down pat, however, but I think we are going to stop here, as we’re not likely to be asked for anyone for an explanation.

The sad thing is that we have no real good excuse for not knowing.  It is our native language and we should have it figured out by now.

Being a bit confused reminds me of something that happened a long time ago, when my young Turkish friend was learning English.  She had taken English in her classes in Istanbul when I met her, but as any of you who have every struggled to learn a foreign language know, it is hard to remember all the meanings.  She was speaking fairly well, but when she got excited words tended to leave her.  One day she was talking about the possibility down the road of marriage and in the middle of her enthusiasm she lost a word.  She paused, and then said to me, “Will I be the bride or the groom?” 

Words that are so simple are not always that easy for everyone.  And I guess that is why I struggle with animal nomenclature.  Surely I should know by now.  Obviously we don’t, but talking about it sure does give us a time of hilarity, when we have to ‘fess up that yes, we still have trouble with beeves and heiferettes!

1 comment:

Olga said...

I was reminded of my ignorance at a baby shower several years ago. The game was to match the adult animal name to the baby name. Sounds easy. I failed miserably.
I learned today that I did not actually know what a steer was.