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The phrase "to have a cow" is defined as "to be very worried, upset, or angry about something" in Free Dictionary Online.

Other sources also define it to mean to react very strongly and emotionally. While it almost always is a negative response to stressful news or events, I imagine it might be used under other more positive circumstances.

Many may have become recently acquainted with this expression from "The Simpsons" TV show, as "Don't have a cow" is a catchphrase of the character Bart Simpson.

This source says, without reference, that the phrase is said to have originated in the 1950s, and also may related to the British phase "to have kittens" (Phrase Finder).

My interest was piqued when I was acquainted with some of Gertrude Stein's writings from the movie "Paris Was a Woman". In particular, "A Book Concluding With As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story", published in Paris in 1926, (Google Books) caught my attention. The analyses that I heard say that there is little doubt from the context that "to have a cow" equated to having an orgasm. One summary of that analysis appears here.


My question comes down to whether Stein's metaphor is the origin of the phrase as it is currently used. It seems possible that the meaning of "an extreme, emotional reaction" might fall somewhere in the evolutionary path between Stein's usage and the current one. (It's also possible that she simply created a double entendre from an existing phrase.) What I've covered so far doesn't necessarily mean there is a relationship between Stein's metaphor and the more current expression, but it does look like a possibility.

I don't have a good understanding how to pursue this question any further. What I have seen about the origins (as cited above) is that they don't seem to be very certain, and only agree to a possibility about its provenance.

Is Stein's usage related to the current meaning? If so, how did it evolve? How did it come to be associated more with negative reactions. If it originated before Stein used it, what is the source?

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2 Answers 2

The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008) says:

have a cow to become emotionally overwrought; to lose control US, 1966.

Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors (1995) by Robert Allen Palmatier says:

HAVE A COW to have a cow. To have an anxiety attack. Source: COW. WNNCD: O.E. On the TV show "The Simpsons," Bart Simpson says "Don't have a cow, man!" meaning "Don't get all upset about it." Bart is likening an anxiety attack to giving birth to a cow - a frightening thought. Normally cows are the ones that give birth to cows - i.e., bull calves and heifer calves. Compare Have Kittens.

WNNCD is Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983) and O.E. means Old English, but the O.E. must apply to the plain word cow rather than the phrase. (The OED dates cow to Old English.)

This Yahoo Voices article - Idioms Unpacked: "Don't Have a Cow" - also claims it means to (not) give birth to a cow, which would be distressing for a human to do. It lists a number of references at the end, but I've not followed them.

A quick search of Google Books shows this snippet dated 1962 from Field and Stream, Volume 67:

"Oh, don't have a cow," Chip said confidently. "They just haven't begun to fly yet."

"If they don't fly soon," Andy insisted, "they're going to need landing lights."

(Care must be taken with Google Books' snippets as they're often mislabelled, but following the story text we find an advert for a "NEW 1963 book of homes", so it's likely from 1962 or 1963.)

Searching Subzin.com, the first film I found to use the phrase was Sixteen Candles (1984):

00:39:00 I don't know, Jake.
00:39:02 I'm getting strange signals. Well, they're not comin' from me.
00:39:05 Everything's fine. Don't have a cow.
00:39:08 Okay. 00:39:10 Just remember one thing.


Edit: Good timing, as the OED have just released an update to the dictionary containing the phrase for the first time. The first quotation is from a 1959 newspaper:

1959 Denton (Texas) Record-Chron. 26 Mar. 3/2 He won't let me watch rock 'n roll shows... He'd have a cow if he knew I watched 77 Sunset Strip.

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Of course the earliest known citation is from cattle country! –  meetar Dec 13 '13 at 13:44

First I think we can establish with some certainty that Gertrude Stein's use was not the beginning of this metaphor. Consider the similarities between Stein's "As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story" and the Greek fable of IO, who was loved by Zeus and turned into a cow when Zeus's wife, Hera, discovered them. Hera later sent a gadfly to infect IO in cow form, which caused IO to wander in madness across the world for many years. Finally Zeus transforms IO back to human form and she births Zeus's child. http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/The_Myths/Zeus_s_Lovers/Io_/io_.html

Stein was extremely well read and would have considered all meanings. She would not have overlooked the connection between her choice of words and this Greek story. Certainly she would also have been fully aware of the sexual imagery both in her choice of words and in the original Greek story, just as she would have been aware of the linguistic connections between gadfly and estrum, which is the female version of orgasm. (look up estrual, estruation, estrum)

So on the one hand the analysis that there is a level of meaning in this poem that can be connected to orgasm is correct. It's a very shallow level of meaning and only a step towards grasping the ultimate meaning of the poem, in my opinion. When I consider this poem in connection with the Greek story and with Stein's life I see a lot more. Full poem is here on pages 481-482: http://www.archive.org/stream/selectedwritings030280mbp/selectedwritings030280mbp_djvu.txt

For instance, if the poem is only about orgasm, why the reference to the fifteenth of October? In Stein's story "The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas" the date fifteenth of October appears in two important ways. First, it is connected to travel, when they are told they can return to Paris. Second, it is connected to "The Fifteenth of November" which is a poem Stein wrote and was trying to get published. Story can be found here: (edit I'm limited to two links so you'll have to add http:// to the front of this) gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0608711.txt

When I look at the poem I see connections to giving birth, as an author gives birth, to a creative work. I also see a lot of frustration in the poem. When I first read it I thought it was like a very droll version of an early attempt at the style that Dr. Seuss ultimately perfected, but once I began connecting a few dots, I thought that what I originally perceived as drollness might instead be frustration. Going back to "The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas" the war is going on and there's a lot frustration connected to that and also TS Elliot asks Stein to write a poem, but insists on a new work, so she produces "The Fifteenth of November" and writes "It was all about wool is wool and silk is silk or wool is woolen and silk is silken. She sent it to T. S. Eliot and he accepted it but naturally he did not print it." I see a lot of similarity in the language that she uses to describe the poem "The Fifteenth of November" and the language in "As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story" and I also understand that a writer who is told to produce a new work and that it "will be published" - so she produces it and it's not published - might understandably feel frustrated.

If that writer was familiar with the Greek story of IO, she might even empathize, as if the man who had been a part of her conceiving a new creative work had then turned her into a cow and ultimately led to her having to wander in frustration, while the creative child waited to be born.

She begins the poem with words like "all of it" and "as to be" and "has made" which all ring of the creative process.

Then there comes in the "when he can" and, later, "not and now, now and not" and "On the fifteenth of October as they say, said anyway, what is it as they expect, as they expect it or as they expected it, as they expect it and as they expected it, expect it or for it, expected it and it is expected of it." This last part seems to ring of her being promised by Elliot that the poem would be published in the October issue but it wasn't, and she had provided a new poem, because he had told her he would publish her poem if she produced a new work. So what did he expect? Because a new work was conceived and it wasn't published/birthed, at least not immediately, and again not in October, and how long must she wait? In the end she is still waiting: "My wife has a cow." (Stein being the wife in this creative process)

Of course one could argue that having the cow is giving birth, not still waiting, and it certainly seemed that way to me at first. But in the IO story the time of the cow is the time of frustrated waiting and wandering, not yet giving birth. And I think Stein was just perverse enough to like that the easy meaning is not the correct meaning. What is also very interesting in my interpretation is that if Stein is associating having the cow with frustration then it ties very well to the modern meaning, linked by Stein from the ancient Greek story of IO to the late 1950's hip lingo.

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