One thing I noticed in the last two primary debates was that the candidates kept yammering on about their fathers/father-like figures. Newt Gingrich went on and on about his father’s military service (as if anybody cared), Rick Santorum wouldn’t let us forget that his grandfather was a coal miner (y él, ¿qué pitos toca?), and Mitt Romney shared a pretty bizarre piece of advice that his father had given him about running for election that Jon Stewart brilliantly skewered later on. Everybody knows about Jon Huntsman’s billionaire daddy, and Ron Paul is always talking about the Founding Fathers–I’m just grateful to be mercilessly spared knowledge about Rick Perry’s father . . . so far, anyway. (Obama is not exempt here, by the way– his memoir was titled Dreams from My Father) Everyone wants to talk about their dad, I guess.

In the spirit of politicians who invoke their fathers at opportune moments for political gain, I’d like to share that I was the proud daughter-in-law* of a cattleman for one year. Yes, mi exsuegro era ganadero. Well, he still is. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to convince you to vote for me just because my former father-in-law, Olier, is a rancher–I’m just going to use that fact to attempt to justify the rather peculiar choice I’ve made for a blog post today: cow vocabulary in Spanish. That’s right; I’ve got it in my head to write this post, and there’s no talking me out of it. The muse has struck (or would it be the moos?), and I really can’t account for her taste. What can I say? She simply insists that I write about cow terminology in Spanish. I haven’t looked up a single word–through the uncanny vicissitudes of life, each of these bovine terms has somehow made its way to me.

How now, brown cow? ¿Cómo ahora, vaquita carmelita?

Cow terms in Spanish (because you never know when they’ll come in handy)

vaca – cow

toro – bull

becerro/a  – calf

ternero/a – calf

novillo/a – heifer; steer

ganado – livestock, cattle

hato – herd

My ex-boyfriend’s family lived in Bello, a municipality to the north of Medellín, and its former name was Hatoviejo.  Hato Viejo was also the name of a bus company there, so I noticed it on buses and learned the word. Quite an improvement, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you rather live in “Beautiful” than “Old Cow Herd”?

arrear – to herd, drive

enlazar – to lasso

Why, yes, I have practiced lassoing and being lassoed on a Colombian ranch.

mugir – to moo

ordeñar – to milk

ubre – udder

It’s a delicacy there, but I didn’t try it. Shudder.

una época de vacas flacas – lean times, hard times

The only line from Cien años de soledad that I know by heart is Apártense vacas, que la vida es corta. Get out of the way, cows, life is short. (I think that the official translation–“Cease, cows, life is short.”–is awfully odd.)

Spanish speaker? Don’t worry, I have a few cow phrases for you as well.

To have a cow – to flip out, overreact, make a big fuss about something that doesn’t merit it. Usually used in the negative. Mom, don’t have a cow, but I got a tattoo.

Till the cows come home – to do something for a very long time but in vain. Similar to doing something until you’re blue in the face. You can keep studying the dictionary till the cows come home, but it won’t help your fluency.

Holy cow! – old-fashioned and mild expression for astonishment. Gee whiz! Good grief! Jiminy cricket! Holy cow! That’s one heck of a bruise you got there.

Guess what?! I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell! – a famous line from a Saturday Night Live sketch with Christopher Walken pleading for more cowbell (an instrument) in a recording session of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” This is only to be looked into if your English is out of this world and you are eager to learn hilarious cultural references. Otherwise, completely skippable. I gotta have more cowbell! 

You know, if you speak French poorly, the French will say that you speak their language like a Spanish cow–parler le français comme une vache espagnole. The only way to trump this scathing affront would be to start talking about cows in Spanish– breeding trends, milk prices, innovations in lasso techniques, etc. When your arrogant friend’s head starts spinning and he can only pathetically stammer Oui, oui, la vaca hace mu, that’s your moment to pounce, oh-so-nonchalantly commenting, “Oh, I see that you talk about cows in Spanish just like a Frenchman.” They’ve really had this coming to them for a long time.

*You do know that suegro and suegra are often used for your partner’s parents, right? You do now.

_________________________________________________ Non-natives, what’s your experience with these cow terms? Had you heard them before? How have you heard them used? Where? If you’re a native Spanish speaker, anything to correct, clarify, comment on or concur with? 


13 responses to “Cowtalk

  1. whatwhileweslept

    :) Love it.


    • I totally thought of exploiting you as well to justify this post– Well, you know, my best friend’s family lives next to a cow pasture, so that makes this post EXTREMELY apropos…



  2. Yes, this is quite wonderful indeed. As, as I’m a Taurus, I’m taking these particularly to heart as the language of my kind ; )


  3. language ABOUT my kind, rather…unless cows speak Spanish universally, that is ; )


    • LOL- you mean your kine ;)

      I think there’s a strong argument to be made in favor of cows speaking Spanish. This is why they are such awesome animals, after all.

      Kayla, mi vaquita linda!


  4. I definitely remeber reading the one about “speaking French like a Spanish cow”, although I’m not 100% if it was during a French class or if it was a case of other language using the same expression. My Spanish self-teach book has a text about bulls (in the context of San Fermines, not corrida). Incidentally, do they do corrida in Colombia?


  5. The way I remember vaca was because the first vaccine was using cowpox to immunize against small pox since cowpox was non lethal, yet it built your immunity to small pox as well. I know thats dumb, but was I thought it, I can’t disassociate vaca from cowpox vaccine in my mind anymore


    • That’s not dumb at all! That’s a fascinating way to remember vaca, and I’m impressed.

      I actually just learned that myself the other day– I was applying for a medical interpreter position and reviewing some medical terms. I started to read about the required vaccines on Wikipedia, and I learned about the etymology behind vaccine. I had no idea!


  6. Interesante como siempre. Gracias por las expresiones en inglés.


  7. Por aquí se usa mucho la expresión “hacerse la vaca” que significa faltar a la escuela sin motivo.
    Ejemplo: Juan se hizo la vaca. (no fue al colegio)
    También hay la expresión “hacer una chancha” que significa juntar dinero entre los presentes para comprar algo.
    Ex. Se acabó la cerveza. Hagamos una chancha.


  8. Pingback: A blog birthday | Vocabat

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