Which Word Wednesday: Bull, Cattle, Cow, Ox, and Steer

By March 7, 2012 culture, language No Comments

Talking about wild cows in the road may be cliché when it comes to travel commentary. But clichés become clichés because (mostly) they are true: I really did see cows in the road while I was in India, in a large city, and that’s not the norm where I live. And I really was one of those gawking tourists.

As traffic maneuvered around a particularly large beast that had plopped itself in an intersection, I wondered what sort of animal it was. Cow? Cattle? Steer? I may live in central Illinois, but when it comes to identifying livestock by class, I’m clueless.

How happy I was to find a five-word entry dedicated to these large animals in The Artful Nuance by Rod Evans for this week’s Which Word Wednesday! Here are the definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

“Roaming Cows,” by A. Dollard, 2012

bull :: noun
an uncastrated male bovine animal

cattle :: noun
large ruminant animals with horns and cloven hoofs, domesticated for meat or milk, or as beasts of burden; cows.

cow :: noun
a fully grown female animal of a domesticated breed of ox, used as a source of milk or beef

ox :: noun
a domesticated bovine animal kept for milk or meat; a cow or bull

steer :: noun
a male domestic bovine animal that has been castrated and is raised for beef

How do we sort these out? Well, Rod Evans is a huge help. By his commentary, bulls and cows are both cattle—bulls are male cattle, cows are female cattle.1

Evans also provides insight for the remaining two terms, ox and steer. He says: “Steers and oxen are the same animal, though the former term usually applies to animals raised for beef, and the latter usually applies to draft animals: ‘We used the steers for beef and used the oxen for carrying things.’ ”2

So what sort of cow-animal did I see in India? Honestly, I’m not sure! But they had horns, so perhaps we could classify them as cattle? But it’s not likely these stray animals were used for meat or milk . . . so perhaps that makes them more of a draft animal, placing them in the oxen category? hmmm . . .

What’s my WWW verdict? Talking about animals in the road may be cliché, but I don’t care. I am glad to have seen it with my own eyes!

What’s your verdict? Do you know your cattle from your oxen? Have you ever seen large animals blocking city traffic?! Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Rod Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide to Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 35.
2. Ibid., 36.

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