Sunday, December 3, 2023
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“Why is it called oxtail if it’s from a cow?”

I’m glad you oxed. It’s not just a load of bull.

Ox is a word that, for many of us, is both familiar and strange. I grew up in ranch country in Alberta and I knew that oxen were somehow like the cows and bulls (and steers) that punctuated the pastures, but I had the sense that they were an animal found elsewhere – those parts of the world I saw on TV that had oxen pulling plows, trying to grow crops in a time of poverty and famine. Isn’t that how Oxfam got its name, from oxen and famine? (I actually believed that for a time. And indirectly it’s true: it’s from the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, so the fam is from famine, and the Ox in Oxford is from… ox. The famous university is in a town named after a place where oxen could ford the river Thames.) And of course an ox is something from the Bible: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his ox, nor his ass.”

So I really thought I had seen a real live ox zero times. (Get it? 0 x. Zero times.) And in one sense of the word that’s true: I had never personally seen a bovine used as a draft animal, and that’s the narrowest sense of the use of ox in modern English (more specifically, it’s a neutered male Bos taurus used as such). But in another sense, it’s like saying you’ve seen plenty of fiddles but never a violin, or vice versa. (How old were you when you learned that a violin and a fiddle are the same instrument? I may have been an adult already.) Or it’s like saying you’ve seen donkey, but never an… hmm, no, let’s skip that one. 

In the oldest and broadest sense, ox is to cow and bull as sheep is to ewe and ram. We just happen to have extended the female cow to cover the whole species, partly because most of the bovines we meet are female. The male ones aren’t good eating, and they’re extraordinarily truculent – and strong. That’s why ranchers convert some of them to steers (a mathematical operation: you take the root so they can’t multiply) and the rest don’t make it past veal. So in later drafts, ox was left for the draft animal – a steer with a steering mechanism (the yoke’s on it – usually in pairs, or should I say teams).

So here we have this lovely short highly usable word, more ancient than the language itself, with cognates in many languages (including aurochs, in which the ochs is the same old root as ox). It has a stylish something, and a playful air (O and X as seen in tic-tac-toe), and an affectionate one (a hug and a kiss, O X). And it has one of the two most rakish, branding-y letters in the language (Z being the other). But since we no longer need oxen for draft animals, and we eat cows and have as little to do with (actual) bulls as we can, we just don’t use the word ox much. How often have you, driving by a pasture, said “Look at the oxen”? If you’re like me, zero times. We’re more likely to use ox as a word for a person who is unusually strong, stupid, or (probably) both: in one sense, an ox is a moron.

But of course not an oxymoron. Ironically, the ox (really oxy) in oxymoron, which is the same one as in oxygen, is from Greek ὀξῠ́ς oxus, meaning ‘sharp, keen, bright’ and thus ‘wise’… although you could also describe the point of an ox’s horn with that word too. It’s a cute coincidence, especially because cute is from acute, which is from the same root as ὀξῠ́ς. And so is axe, in case you were about to ax. (By the way, modern English ask is from Old English acsian – somewhere along the line aks became ask – but it has no relation to axe or to ox.)

Oh, and since you might be oxen me about it, there’s also the matter of that plural. We don’t say oxes. Oxen is the sole surviving old weak plural ending in -en. We treat brethren as different from brotherschildren is a weird double plural (both the -(e)r and the -en are plural endings); we rarely use kine for the plural of cow, and anyway that also has historical umlaut on the vowel; and all the other ones have been supplanted by -(e)s, as eyen has become eyes.

So there you have it. Ox: dumb and sharp, a hug and a kiss (you can hug my cow, but don’t kiss my bull; save it for my… donkey), all cattle and only the teamsters. It’s quite the tale. But now you know that if someone gives you a bit of cow queue and calls it oxtail, you have no beef with them. …Except, of course, you do.

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