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I've grown up on a farm, and my dad and his dad, apparently, always used "cattle" to refer to both the singular and plural forms of the domestic bovine. I've always assumed it's how the word "deer" is.

However, I've heard people say that this is incorrect and the singular is just "cow", but this has always offended us as a cow is a mother cattle, and is incorrect if you're referring to a steer, a bull, or a heifer.

So, is cattle singular as well as plural? If not, is there some general, non-gender-specific word that should be used instead?

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5 Answers 5

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Historically, cow refers to a female, and steer or bull refers to a male. The plurals of these are cows, steers and bulls. The 1896 edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (found on Google books) defines cow as:

  1. The mature female of bovine animals.
  2. The female of certain large mammals, as whales, seals, etc.

If you want to refer to more than one of this kind of animal, and don't want to specify the gender, you call them cattle. Cattle is often treated as an uncountable noun.1 To specify three of them, you would say three head of cattle.

There is historically not a singular, non-gender-specific word for one head of cattle. Your father and grandfather used cattle as a singular to fill this gap. Other people are now using cow for this, and this usage is common enough to have made it to the dictionaries. I don't know whether it's common enough to be considered correct among farmers, however, or whether it's just us ignorant city-folk who use it.

1 Update: Looking at Google Ngrams and books, I was surprised to find two cattle used instead of two head of cattle relatively often, although two head of cattle is the more common term.

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Also, if you only have one you will know if it is a cow or a bull, etc. –  Matt Эллен May 27 '11 at 10:44
    
+1 but I find the example 'three head of cattle' sounds odd. You'd know what they were. "My neighbour has 250 head of cattle (one bull, 185 cows, 44 bullocks (steers) and 20 calves)." –  z7sg Ѫ May 27 '11 at 11:07
    
) Also, it's anecdotal of course but I grew up in a small farming community and we'd never call immature or male cattle 'cows'. –  z7sg Ѫ May 27 '11 at 11:23
    
@z7sg: "three head of cattle" comes up in Google books, although not where a farmer could say "two cows and a steer" instead. The funniest example: "In the table in the preceding paragraph, three head of cattle are estimated as being equivalent to two horses or mules, thirty head of sheep and twelve swine; but to leave all out of the calculation, other than the ox or bovine kind, ..." –  Peter Shor May 27 '11 at 13:40
    
Where do oxen and kine come into this? :) –  tchrist May 21 '12 at 19:39
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Singular should be bovine, a cow is basically a female bovine, and bull or steer is a male. People started saying cow, I don't know why, in the 20Th century for some reason (I do not know why) and the correct name should be bovine, cattle (Bos Taurus), is just multiple bovines, but bovines works the same way. If you are saying a domestic bovine, then say ox/oxen . Hope this helps...I have general knowledge on "cows"

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Ahem, a cow can only be Bos taurus, whereas bovine extends to many another critterkin. –  tchrist May 21 '12 at 19:40
    
An ox is a bovine trained for use as a draft animal. See wikipedia. –  Peter Shor May 21 '12 at 20:17
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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cattle is the plural of cow in US English and cow refers to 'the female of any bovine animal'. However, it also mentions that cow can also refer to 'a domestic bovine animal, regardless of sex or age'.

There are no entries in the Oxford English Corpus of cattle being used as a singular noun.

I would say that it is fine to refer to both the male and female as cows, and also that I can see no evidence that cattle can be used as a singular.

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And, if you're speaking in the singular, you can refer to the cow as a cow, steer, heifer, bull, calf, or whatever specific type and gender of cow it is. –  thursdaysgeek Sep 22 '10 at 21:54
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City folk calling a herd of bullocks 'cows' will be understood but it's still infelicitous. –  z7sg Ѫ May 27 '11 at 11:00
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In Western Australia, in my youth (1960s), people on cattle stations called individual cattle a 'beast', especially when the sex was unknown. I'm not sure how widespread this was/is but WP says it's a known usage in (at least parts of) Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain.

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What ever happened to 'cain'. In my early dicationaries that was the correct singular non-gender specific of domestic cattle.

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