You’ve probably heard people from your grandparents’ generation add until the cows come home to some of their conversations. It generally means something will be stretched over a very long period of time, and oftentimes it’s used to describe an activity that’s perceived as being futile or unproductive.
On December 16, 2003 the Business Wire sent out a press release about the new Ben & Jerry’s minisite. It was cleverly titled, “Macromedia Studio MX 2004 Takes Ben & Jerry’s From Cow To Cone.” The site was set to create what it hoped would be a “euphoric user experience” thanks to the extensive use of Flash video. The second paragraph included the idiom.
“Macromedia can talk about great experiences until the cows come home, but once you see a well designed site in action, it really makes an impact,” said Al Ramadan, executive vice president of marketing, Macromedia. “Ben & Jerry’s utilizes the professional tools in Studio MX 2004 to effectively communicate the playfulness of their brand and deliver an interesting educational experience.”
During the 1960s, Clyde McPhatter recorded for Mercury Records. Billboard magazine included a comment in the February 6, 1961 edition on his latest release, “Tomorrow Is A-Comin’” with a nod to the flip side, “I’ll Love You Till The Cows Come Home.” The quip let readers know that both songs had the strong Clyde Otis touch (which was a favorable comment).
And of course, as many of you already know, the idiom was used in the 1933 Marx Brothers movie, “Duck Soup,” where Groucho Marx says:
I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows and you come home.
Back in 1932, American author, Thorne Smith (27 March 1892 – 21 June 1934) wrote a book entitled, “Topper Takes A Trip.” Topper was Thorne Smith‘s most popular creation, and sold millions of books in the 1930s, and again in paperback form in the 1950s. Many people remember the original Topper story, about the middle-aged, henpecked banker, Cosmo Topper (the book was published in 1926).
“I don’t care if he can do himself into a pack of bloodhounds,” replied Mr. Topper. “Where have you been all this time? Answer me that.”
“All right,” said Marion in an injured voice. “Don’t bite my head off. I don’t mind about the hair. You can chew on that till the cows come home.”
“I don’t care to chew on that until the cows start out even,” said Mr. Topper. “I’m not a hair chewer.”
It’s in the Boston Review of October 1805 that the poem in three parts, “The Powers of Genius” written by John Blair Linn, co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia is reviewed. The reviewer, seemingly unimpressed with the poem, included this comment in his review.
Now, to use a rustick phrase, a man may make lines like these “till the cows come home.” Mr. Linn, too, is frequently adjectively vulgar.
In Exshaw’s Magazine, the story, “The Adventure of the Inn” published in 1778 is where this passage is found.
“By Jafus,” answered Dermot, enraged at the word lie, “but if you was my godfather’s own brother, but I’d smite your eye out for that.” And brandishing a large cudgel, let it fall so emphatically upon the hard head of the sturdy Boardspeg, that he reeled Aeneas, beneath the ponderous pebble, flung by the brawny backed Diomed, and bit the dust. “Take that till the cows come home,” said the athletic hero, ready to repeat his blow, had not his furious arm been arrested by the hand of Wilson.
Prior to that Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), the Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin (Ireland) wrote “Polite Conversation: Dialogue II” published in 1736. The main characters are Lord Sparkish, Lord and Lady Smart, Miss Notable, Sir John Linger, Lady Answerall, Mr. Neverout, and Colonel Atwitt. At one point in the discussion, the following exchange occurs.
O my Lord, I know that ; why Brandy is Latin for a Goose, and Tace is Latin for a Candle.
Is that Manners, to shew your Learning before Ladies ? Methinks you are grown very brisk of a sudden ; I think the Man’s glad he’s alive.
SIR JOHN LINGER
The Devil take your Wit, if this be Wit ; for it spoils Company : Pray, Mr. Butler, bring me a Dram after my Goose ; ’tis very good for the Wholsoms.
Come, bring me the Loaf; I sometimes love to cut my own Bread.
I suppose, my Lord, you lay longest a Bed To-day.
Miss, if I had said so, I should have told a Fib ; I warrant you lay a Bed till the Cows came Home : But, Miss, shall I cut you a little Crust now my Hand is in?
Now, Alexander Cooke (who died shortly before 25 February 1613 — that date he was buried according to St. Savior’s Southwark parish records) was an actor in the King’s Men as well as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that were the acting companies of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He also wrote a play, “Pope Joan” in 1610 that was based on the mythical female pope described in 13th century writings.
If there be any lazy fellow, any that can not away with work, any that would wallow in pleasures, he is hasty to be priested. And, when he is made one, 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 cows 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.
While Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom than the one in Alexander Cooke’s play, there is an undated saying from Wigan, Lancashire: Her con fradge till ceaws come wom. The translation is this: She can talk till the cows come home.
So while the saying obviously dates back considerably further than 1610, a specific date cannot be set in stone. Idiomation therefore feels it is safe to state that it was undoubtedly a common phrase used in the 1500s, and most likely long before that.