They say the pun is the lowest form of humour. But there are puns that appeal to you by their inventiveness and verbal wizardry. Newspaper headlines often play with words, and recently, after minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor wrote about cattle class, the pun-making machines in our editorial offices were at full throttle.
They came up with memorable captions, humorous and a little pungent, reciprocating in Tharoor’s own style. “Tharoor’s ‘cattle’ remark gets Cong’s goat,” said one headline, presenting an interesting juxtaposition of two different animals. “Get one’s goat” is an idiom that means make someone angry or annoyed. For example, you might say, “The sight of these hoardings on our highways gets my goat.” The only other goat idiom that is popular is “separate the sheep from the goats”. It echoes Jesus’ prophecy that the sheep will sit on God’s right hand and will be rewarded, and the goats will sit on God’s left hand and will be consigned to eternal fire. Since Tharoor’s remarks appeared on Twitter, one editor wrote, “Tharoor tweet not so sweet, Congress says.”
The two phrases that people picked up were “sacred cow” and “holy cow”. “Sacred cow” has its origin in India. It alludes to the veneration for the cow among the Hindus. Kamadhenu, often known as the cow of plenty, grants the wishes of her worshippers. Raja Rao’s short story, Cow of the Barricades, presents the cow as a symbol of Mother India; the cow, Gauri, gives up her own life to avert a conflict between two groups. “Sacred cow” in its metaphorical sense is dated around 1910 and refers to any institution or organization that is above criticism. “Holy cow” as commonly used does not stand for any concept. It is an exclamation of astonishment, delight or dismay. It became popular with its frequent use in the TV film series featuring Batman and his aide Robin. There are several similar oaths, such as holy smoke, holy Moses, holy moley, holy mackerel.
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The word “cattle” is interesting, too. It can be traced to French “chatel”, English “chattel”, which means one’s personal property, mostly movable, and includes animate and inanimate objects. From its abstract meaning of wealth, its reference changed to farm animals such as cows and oxen, which constituted wealth in those days. Today the dictionary defines “cattle” as “bovine animals, especially domesticated ones, including cow, ox and buffalo, of the genus Bos.”
The syllable “Bos” is found in the name of Bosporus, the strait separating the European and Asian parts of Turkey. There is a Greek fable behind this name. The supreme God Zeus was in love with the river-nymph Io, and to save her from the jealous fury of Hera, his wife, transformed her into a white cow or heifer. To escape from Hera, Io swam across the strait. From then the strait has been known as Bosporus, “the passage of the cow” (Brewer’s Dictionary). After wandering from land to land, Io found rest on the banks of the Nile. An interesting parallel to this is the English place name Oxford, which also means a passage of oxen.
“Bovine” is interesting also from a linguistic point of view. It can serve as a specimen of one type of word formation. While animal names in English are short, simple words, the adjectives derived from them are Latinate. We are familiar with the words feline, canine and elephantine. Some other words that we might come across are leonine (lion), equine (horse), asinine (donkey) and aquiline (eagle). The last word is mostly used to describe the shape of the human nose. An aquiline nose, also known as Roman nose, is one with a prominent bridge. In Gandhara art, some of the sculptures depict the Buddha with an aquiline nose.
The cow has been a part of farm life for millennia, and has entered language in the form of several idioms. “To have a cow” means to become angry or annoyed. A clumsy-fingered person is said to be “as awkward as a cow on a crutch”. “Cash cow” is a common phrase used in business. The movement of herds of cattle over grazing fields is a familiar sight for farmers. In the evening the cattle return home to be fed and milked. This gave rise to the idiom “until the cows come home”. Here is a sentence to illustrate its use: “The elders having gone, the youngsters decided that they could have fun until the cows came home.” Three bull idioms enjoy wide currency: take the bull by the horns, a bull in a china shop, and a cock-and-bull story.
To refer back to the minister’s use of “cattle class”, we have evidence to show that he did not coin a new expression with intent to vilify someone. As early as 2003, the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary had entries for call centre, asylum seeker, cattle class, cybercafe and other “new words from international English”.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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