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This picturesque expression, meaning 'not a very good shot with a rifle' or (of a footballer) unable to score any goals, has cropped up a few times recently in my reading. Does anyone know where it originated?

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I first remember Mark James, the golfer, describing himself during the Ryder Cup in the late eighties. That's how well he was playing off the tee at the time. The phrase stuck with me. –  user7034 Apr 6 '11 at 22:04

4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I believe it is an Irish slang phrase.

You couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo (phr): bad aim, woeful hurler/darts player/soccer player etc.

Below are some Google findings which make me think this way:

I also came accross an interesting forum thread which mentions this phrase. Here is an excerpt:

Jackie Milburn: - My dad used to say "son, yer couldn't hit a cow's arse with a shovel"

Juande the Spurrier: - There is a shovel that is called a banjo, because it's shaped like the musical instrument. Seems a farmer might be more likely to have a shovel than a banjo.

With further research, I found out that banjo is a shovel type indeed.

Banjo (as a shovel):
alt text

Banjo (as a musical instrument):
alt text

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I hail from the Highlands of Scotland and this phrase has been in common use throughout my life. It was a favourite of my dad's. I'm 56 now so it's been around at least since the 1950s. Though, I must point out that, in front of my mum he always used the form backside rather than arse.

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  • During the Congo Crisis Mike Hoare organised and led two separate mercenary groups (1960–1961, and 1964) and wrote about it in his 1967 Congo Mercenary:

One of my young recruits amused me one day when I heard him exclaim to an old sweat who had missed the target completely, "Garn, you couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo!" My main concern was in the training of officers and NCOs and I ...

One of my young recruits amused me one day when I heard him exclaim to an old sweat who had missed the target completely, "Garn, you couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo!"

  • Robert Smith's 1947 Baseball: a historical narrative of the game, the men who have played it, and its place in American life says:

The only man left on the bench was Colcolough, who, some fans whispered, couldn't hit a bull on the backside with a shovel. He certainly couldn't hit today, for he struck out to end the game.

The only man left on the bench was Colcolough, who, some fans whispered, couldn't hit a bull on the backside with a shovel. He certainly couldn't hit today, for he struck out to end the game.

  • Eugene V. Connett and Edgar Burke's 1947 Duck Shooting Along the Atlantic Tidewater:

One gem was a confession by Chick Welles, who said, "I don't know what ailed me today — I just couldn't hit a cow in the behind with a snow shovel."

One gem was a confession by Chick Welles, who said, "I don't know what ailed me today — I just couldn't hit a cow in the behind with a snow shovel."

  • A circa 1947 Archery, Volumes 19-21:

I couldn't hit a bull in the broadside with a scoop shovel. Ever."

I couldn't hit a bull in the broadside with a scoop shovel. Ever."

  • John Cherry Monks' 1945 A ribbon and a star: the Third marines at Bougainville:

All of a sudden courageous, he called after the departing planes: "You couldn't hit the broad side of a bull's ass with a spade, you slant-eyed bastard! Go home and lie your head off! 'Flames could be seen for fifty miles'— and you ...

All of a sudden courageous, he called after the departing planes: "You couldn't hit the broad side of a bull's ass with a spade, you slant-eyed bastard!

  • Francis van Wyck Mason's 1942 Rivers of glory

"You dumb bastards couldn't hit a blind ox on the rump with a scoop shovel." Andrew standing taut behind the wheel felt aghast. Three clean misses and the time lost was irretrievable. He tried to inject cool confidence into his command ...

  • A 1939 Collier's, Volume 104:

Leo was along in years s ballplayers went; he couldn't hit the ide of an elephant with a banjo and, be- ides, he was always fighting. That was II true, but Leo proceeded to have his test year. When September rolled around, ...

Leo was along in years s ballplayers went; he couldn't hit the ide of an elephant with a banjo

A 1936 Blackwood's magazine:

At last Big Jim had refused to provide further ammunition, saying crudely, " Y' couldn't hit a cow's back with a shovel." In the canoe portage race, where each man had to paddle his canoe across the lake, shoulder his pack and canoe, ...

At last Big Jim had refused to provide further ammunition, saying crudely, " Y' couldn't hit a cow's back with a shovel."

There are plenty of other early examples of things people can't hit with a banjo/shovel/spade, quite common are elephants, balloons, barn doors and nails.

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Using Google's daterange feature, I did a search for pages dated 2000 to 2003 [1], and found the earliest verifiable mention of this phrase in a story in The Independent called My Side By David Beckham with Tom Watt dated 3 October 2003:

in a league where half the native players, to quote Dave Bassett, couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo

Google finds no mention of this phrase from 1970 to 2000 [2].

With more time and more refined searches you may be able to find earlier mentions of this phrase.

Technical note: I used http://www.onlineconversion.com/julian_date.htm to convert Georgian to Julian dates:

[1] http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=Couldn%27t+hit+a+cow%27s+arse+with+a+banjo+daterange:2451804-2452899

[2] http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=Couldn%27t+hit+a+cow%27s+arse+with+a+banjo+daterange:2451804-2452899

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1  
P.S. StackExchange seems to have problems with links containing apostrophes –  Antony Quinn Sep 16 '10 at 12:52
1  
%27 is the way to go. I've edited the links accordingly. –  RegDwigнt Sep 16 '10 at 17:21
    
@RegDwight: Thanks for updating the links. –  Antony Quinn Sep 16 '10 at 18:22
    
I just found a better way of searching Google by date range -- you get a nice visualisation of the data too: google.co.uk/… –  Antony Quinn Sep 17 '10 at 11:52

protected by tchrist Oct 4 '12 at 3:04

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