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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 Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 16:58
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    I was in Bavaria in the late 1970s and early 1980s and I actually saw the cows coming home. The cows all belonged to different farmers and would go up into the pastures for the day, and at the end of the day they would “come home”. You could actually see them all walking together and splitting off when they got to their farms.
    – user199708
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 17:28

5 Answers 5

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Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, second edition (2006) has this entry for the phrase "not until the cows come home":

not until the cows come home Not for a long time. Presumably the time referred to is when cows return to the barn for milking. The term has been around since the late sixteenth century. Beaumont and Fletcher's play The Scornful Lady (1610) stated, "Kiss till the cow come home."

Robert Allen, Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases (2008), who also cites The Scornful Lady, concurs with Ammer as to the original sense of the phrase:

till the cows come home

for ever, indefinitely: from the former practice of leaving cows out at pasture until they were ready for milking. 16th cent


Early usage in England

Here is the quotation from The Scornful Lady with a bit more of the surrounding play for context:

Enter young Loveless, and his Comrades, with Wenches, and two Fidlers.

Young Loveless. Come my brave Man of War, trace out thy darling,/And you my learned Council, sit and turn Boys,/Kiss till the Cow come home, kiss close, kiss close Knaves./My Modern Poet, thou shalt kiss in Couplets./ Enter with Wine. /Strike up you merry Varlets, and leave your peeping, This is no pay for Fidlers.

Like Ammer and Allen, William Carew Hazlitt, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrase Collected from the Most Authentic Sources (1907) cites the occurrence in The Scornful Lady (albeit with a later publication date, but Hazlitt presents the proverbial phrase itself as including the word kiss:

Kiss till the cow come home

This appears to be introduced proverbially into Fletcher's Scornful Lady, 1616, where Loveless says: "And you, my learned council, set and turn, boys;/Kiss till the cow come home." [Citation omitted.]

However, Hazlitt fails to note that Beaumont and Fletcher used "till the cow come home" in another play—The Captain (circa 1609–1612)—in the context of drinking rather than kissing:

Host. Good night!

Jacomo. Good morrow! Drink till the cow come home, 'tis all paid boys.

George Apperson, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs (1993), which I believe is a reprint of Apperson's English Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings: A Historical Dictionary (1929) gives an instance of "till the cow come home" from Alexander Cooke, "Pope Joan: A Dialogue Between a Protestant and a Papist" (1625), reprinted in The Harleian Miscellany (1745):

And when he is made one [a priest], and hath gotten a Benefice, he consorts with his Neighbour Priests, who are altogether given to Pleasures ; and then both he, and they, live, not like Christians, but like Epicures; drinking, eating, feasting, and revelling, till the Cow come Home, as the Saying is ; playing at Tables, and at Stool-ball ; and, when they are well crammed and tippled, then they fall by the Ears together, whooping, and yelling, and swearing damnably, by God and all the Saints in Heaven.

and a first occurrence of the modern form "till the cows come home" from Swift, Polite Conversation, Dialogue II (1738):

Miss Notable. I suppose, my lord, you lay longest abed today?

Lord Smart. Miss, if I had said so, I should have told a fib; I warrant you lay abed till the cows came home: but, miss, shall I cut you a little crust, now my hand is in?

Miss Notable. If you please, my lord, a bit of undercrust.


Usage in the United States

In a Google Books search for the phrase, "till the cows come home," the earliest match appears in the context of an extended example of "The Yankee Dialect" in a handbook titled How to Talk (1857):

He [the Yankee] says I guess when he means I think ; uses the word awful in the sense of ugly and very great ; ary for either ; back and forth for back and forward ; blows up his help instead of scolding them ; swaps jack-knives and horses ; is seldom green enough to get into a fix ; generally goes the whole figure, and holds on "till the cows come home ;" but occasionally his enterprises fizzle out, and he is obliged to fork over the dimes and back out, or be smashed up.

By "Yankee," the anonymous author of this handbook seems to mean "New Englander," since he addresses "The New York Dialect" in a separate section.

Other examples soon follow. From a letter dated September 23, 1858, and included in Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker: Minister of the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society, Boston, volume 2 (1864):

Massachusetts is likely to send a stronger anti-slavery delegation to Congress than ever before. ... Governor Banks would, no doubt, lower the Republican platform, if that operation would help him up. But Massachusetts will oppose any such act, so will the people of the North. If we put up a spooney, we shall lose the battle, lose our honor, and be demoralized. Edward Everett is beating every New England bush for voters to elect him. He may beat till the cows come home, and get little from his labor.

And from Gail Hamilton, "The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties," in Atlantic Monthly (March 1860):

"But do consider, Mr. Geer, the child has got to leave us some time. We can't have her always."

"Why can't we?" exclaimed Mr. Geer, almost fiercely.

"Sure enough! Why can't we? There a'n't nobody besides you and me, I suppose that thinks she's pairk. What's John Herricks and Dan Norris hangin' round for all the time?"

"And they may hang round till the cows come home! Nary hair of Ivy's head shall they touch,—nary one on 'em!"

(I have no idea what pairk means in the above quotation.)


Conclusions

The earliest form of the expression seems to have been "till the cow come home" from the late 1500s or early 1600s, with "till the cows come home" in use by 1738. The references I consulted agreed that the expression refers to cows coming back to the barn from the pasture either in the evening or in the morning, not to cows escaping the confines of a farm and not returning at all. Indeed, Eric Partridge, in his edition of Swift's Polite Conversation [combined snippets], says that the original phrase had the sense "till the cow come home for milking"":

'lay a Bed 'till the Cows come home': the unit is 'til(l) the cows come home, earliest (1610) till the cow come home (for milking).


Update (May 23, 2021): Even earlier instances of 'till the cow come home'

It now appears that Beaumont and Fletcher were not the first authors to commit "till the cow come home" to paper. A search of Early English Books Online yields two examples from before 1600 and another from 1610—the same year as The Scornful Lady.

From John Prime, An Exposition, and Observations upon Saint Paul to the Galathians togither with Incident Quæstions Debated, and Motiues Remoued (1587):

I knowe the world is cunning, and can distinguish, and iangle of tithes and church-liuings too and fro, till the cow come home, and that in some is borne withal, which in some others is sacrilege without any alteration of other circumstance, but that affection can winke when it will. When all is done, for I purpose not to enter particular discourse thereof, the resolution of all in all is, God wil not be mocked.

From John Eliot, Ortho-epia Gallica Eliots Fruits for the French: Enterlaced with a Double New Inuention, Which Teacheth to Speake Truely, Speedily and Volubly the French-Tongue (1593):

Well, shall we too it [playing a game of cards] now?

But thou Lancelot, so soone as thou hast gotten sixpence, you do giue them ouer, with whom you play.

That is rather to deceaue and mocke, then to play.

You say true indeed: For if I loose once sixpence, I am tied by the foote till the Cow come home.

And from Alexander Cooke, Pope Ioane A Dialogue Betweene a Protestant and a Papist. Manifestly Prouing, That a Woman Called Ioane was Pope of Rome: Against the Surmises and Obiections Made to the Contrarie, by Robert Bellarmine and Cæsar Baronius Cardinals: Florimondus Ræmondus, N.D. and Other Popish Writers, Impudently Denying the Same (1610):

PROTESTANT. ... If there be any lasie fellow, any that cannot away with worke, any that would wallow in pleasures, he is hastie to be priested. And when he is made one, and hath gotten a benefice, he consorts with his neighbour Priests, who are altogether giuen to pleasures: and then both he, and they, liue, not like Christians, but like Epicures: drinking, eating, feasting, and reuelling, til the cow come home, as the saying is; playing at tables, and at stoole-ball: and when they are well cramd, and tipled, then they fall by the eares together, whooping, and yelling, and swearing damnably, by God and all the Saints in heauen. And after all matters be somewhat pacified, then arising out of their whores laps they go to the Masse.

The instances cited here from 1587 and 1593 use the expression in settings where there is no reason to bring up a cow except to invoke it as part of a figurative phrase. And the instance from 1610 explicitly characterizes "til the cow come home" as a "saying."

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  • Just about to ask this question when I found this great answer! Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 18:14
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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
    Commented Jan 23, 2011 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
    Commented Jan 23, 2011 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
    Commented Jan 23, 2011 at 16:10
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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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  • Right, so the expression essentially meant "you can do xxx until the end of the working day".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 19:29
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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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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
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 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
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 21:40

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