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Which one is the most general: "ox", "bull", "bison" or "buffalo"?

I've looked it up in Wikipedia, but it seems that the authors of articles in Wikipedia are trying to avoid using general terms and would rather use special scientific terms derived from Latin, which makes definitions very accurate and that's, of course, the way how any article in encyclopedia should be. But here I am more concerned about general terms and their usage, not precise definitions. So, which one of those four words seems more inclusive to you? (I know "cattle" would probably "swallow" them all :) )

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I just want to point out that "bull" is the male of any herbivorous yet still dangerous species: bovine, moose, walrus, whale, even goose. Plus, frog. Dunno why. –  Malvolio Sep 18 '13 at 22:34
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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Bison, ox, and buffalo are all specific, different species. Confusingly, bison are sometimes called buffalo, although my impression is that this is becoming less common.

Bulls are adult males, most commonly cattle, though potentially from any of these species (and even some very different species---sea lion males, for instance, are also called bulls). Apparently ox is also used to refer to a castrated male from any of these species (again, mostly commonly cattle).

If you want a term that includes all of these, you probably want "bovine".

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In the U.S., "buffalo" and "bison" are used interchangeably for the species Bison bison (latin name). I would say (as an American English speaker) that "buffalo" is by far the more common term in everyday speech, though one could certainly argue that "bison" is the more technically correct term. See also the discussion at the start of the wikipedia article.


ADDED:

I tried some googling to isolate American uses of "buffalo" versus "bison":

"great plains" buffalo -- 4.5 million results

"great plains" bison -- 1.5 million results

If you replace "great plains" with the name of an American state in the region (Kansas, Nebraska, ...) in the above searches, the ratio becomes more like 10 to 1 in favor of "buffalo". I would guess that there are a significant fraction of Americans who aren't sure what a "bison" is, but these same people would have no trouble identifying a "buffalo" (meaning what biologists would call an "American bison").

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Despite the fact that bison are not buffalo. Though given that the etymology of the "American Buffalo" states "wrongly applied since 1630s" - I guess that it is now valid phrasing! ;-) –  Orbling Dec 7 '10 at 14:48
    
Q: What's the difference between a buffalo and a bison? A: You can't wash your hands in a buffalo. –  psmears Mar 27 '11 at 10:20
    
+1, just for encouraging reading that article's entry about the name. IMHO, the meer fact that "American Bison" can have fertile offspring with domestic cattle seriously undercuts any pedantic argument about names dreamt up by species classificationists long after we all started calling them buffalo. –  T.E.D. Oct 13 '11 at 22:04
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To my knowledge, they are all separate species within the Bovini genus.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bovini

None of the words you mention can be used at all for any of the others. "Cattle" can be, or Bovines.

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