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What does It Mean to Have a Cow?

Michael Pollick
Updated: May 23, 2024

The expression "have a cow" is said to have originated in the 1950s, although an earlier British expression, "having kittens," did cover the same territory. The idea is that certain bits of unexpected or bad news might create the same agony and pain as literally giving birth to a cow. There is every chance that the recipient of bad news might react badly, going ballistic or blowing his or her top.

The cartoon character Bart Simpson helped to popularize this expression with one of his catchphrases, "Don't have a cow, man." Since the character was known for his outrageous pranks and irreverent attitude toward authority figures, most of his victims were prone to extreme frustration. In some respects, it may be more understandable to have a cow instead of a hissy fit, since even the most patient person could lose his or her temper with the proper outside motivation.

Sometimes the expression is used in anticipation of an emotional response. One might say the boss will have a cow when he learns what the new employee did to the company car. A parent might have such a reaction if a child fails to meet an assigned curfew. The problem is not always the bad news itself, but rather the level of anger or outrage the recipient is about to reach. This is why many people try to defuse the situation by advising the recipient of stressful news to not react badly.

The expression is very informal, so it shouldn't be used in situations where serious empathy or counseling would be in order. The advice to "not" have one might best be used in circumstances where the initial situation sounds worse than it actually is. When a child brings home a bad report card, for instance, a parent might react badly at first, but the long-term problem can still be addressed. There may be no good way to avoid watching someone have an extreme response to an issue, but the good news is that the episode is usually short-lived.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By wavy58 — On Aug 29, 2012

@OeKc05 – This phrase has always made me angry, too. If I'm upset, then there is a good reason for it. If someone tells me not to have a cow, they are saying that I am making a big deal out of something trivial.

I don't think this phrase should ever be said to someone who is reacting in anger. Sure, you can say it as a comment about how you think someone may react, as long as that person isn't in the room at the time. If you say it to them after they have shown anger, you will only be adding fuel to the flame.

By feasting — On Aug 29, 2012

I saw a cute “don't have a cow” t-shirt online. My mother loves cows, and she collects cow items, so I was looking for a shirt she would like.

The shirt had the phrase scribbled out to the side of a cow that was obviously angry. It was frowning, showing its teeth, and jumping up and down. The image is just so unexpected, and that's what makes it humorous.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 28, 2012

My older sister totally had a cow when my friends and I hid under her bed and waited for her to fall asleep so that we could scare the living daylights out of her. When we jumped out, she screamed, covered her head, and started sobbing.

When she heard our laughter, she realized what had happened. She gave us a strong cursing and hit us hard with her pillow as she chased us out of her room. One of my friends told her, “Don't have a cow!” and that only angered her more.

By StarJo — On Aug 27, 2012

I live out in the country, and I have literally seen a mother cow have a baby cow. There is a lot of high-pitched mooing and straining, and sometimes, the farmer has to go in with his hands and help the baby cow out into the world.

So, I understand the intensity behind this phrase. Having a cow is definitely not pleasant, and it isn't an easy thing to do or to get over.

By BigBloom — On Feb 04, 2011

This could date back to the time when bulls were a key part of society and religion in Europe. People would sacrifice objects and other people to cows and bulls, and bulls could easily turn on you in a wild fit or tantrum. Cows were also sacrificed to atone for sins or to gain the favor of the gods.

By anon20453 — On Oct 31, 2008

The phrase was also termed by the writer and feminist, Gertrude Stein, in the early 20th century. It actually means "to have an orgasm," as she refers to it in one of her books. This information can be checked in documentary "Paris was a Woman".

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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