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What is the origin of the term 'til the cows come home? While discussing this with friends tonight, the group had two possible explanations:

  • Cows return to their barn for milking at a given time late each night.

  • If a cow runs away or escapes, it doesn't return, unlike horses, which will return to their stable. As such, 'til the cows come home is an indefinitely long time.

So, which is correct? If anybody can point me to a reputable source explaining the history of this phrase, I'd be interested to know.

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“I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought I'd rather dance with the cows until you come home.” -- Groucho Marx –  Malvolio Jul 5 '11 at 16:58

4 Answers 4

This source here http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/382900.html says that your first suggestion is the correct one. But I'd be interested in learning more about this too.

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I had always understood it to be the first explanation too, though there's another possibility: once the cows are sent for slaughter, they never come home... –  user3444 Jan 23 '11 at 11:20
    
@ElendilTheTail, I bet this expression predates a freezer. I think in the old days it was better to have dairy cows than beef cows, because you get a steady supply of nutritious food daily rather than a lump-sum of meat and organs. As such, cows would not be slaughtered, but bulls would be. After owning and milking a cow for 10 years straight, an owner would sometimes become attached to it, plus at 10 years old a cow would not taste as good. A bull is ready for slaughter within 12-18 months. I would say the ratio of cows to bulls killed would be less than 1:15. Also, they would not kill 100s –  Job Jan 23 '11 at 16:03
    
(continued) of cows in one day. Finally, cows behave very well in a herd. It takes maybe 1-2 people, plus possibly 1 dog to man a herd of 100 cows. In the summer time, this would be a very cheap way to feed them - essentially let them feed themselves. This only works in not so densely populated areas, but 100-200 years ago this was not a big deal in many countries. So, cows do come back, slowly but surely, and often somewhat late in the evening - easily at 7PM. Given that they would head out in the morning at 6AM-7AM, this makes for pretty long and slow work shift for the herder. –  Job Jan 23 '11 at 16:10

In Austrian and German alpine villages there is an annual festival for when the cows come home. They dress up the cows and bring them down from the mountains for winter. At one time this meant bringing them into the home for winter warmth. If you wait until the cows come home, you will be waiting until autumn.

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Cows do indeed come home by themselves. They like to be milked and they generally like their barn. The dairy farm I used to visit would milk the cows in the morning, and then let them wander out into the pastures. You then were free to do a million other chores and whatnot until the cows came home, which marked the transition into the end of the working day.

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In Switzerland the cows have very little grass to eat so the farmers gradually raise their feeding grounds to higher levels up the mountain (the Swiss Alps). The farmers live in little cabins on the side of the mountain so they can milk the cows and make cheese (Swiss cheese) to sell. When winter comes they bring the cows down the mountain (when the cows come home). There is a parade celebrating their homecoming for the winter. The cows are decorated with flowers and wreaths around their necks. I learned this when I went to visit this July.

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Welcome to ELU.SE. Stack Exchange answers are intended to answer the question explicitly without any implication/inference necessary. Would you like to edit this so it does? (Eg: the cows coming home is an annual event, for which there may be a long wait) –  Andrew Leach Aug 5 at 21:35
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This also essentially duplicates the previous answer about cows in Austrian and German villages. That answer could probably be generalized to "European alpine villages," as it appears the tradition is present in multiple cultures. I don't think we need a separate answer for each culture in which it applies. –  nhinkle Aug 5 at 21:40

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