Holy cow (expression)

For other uses, see Holy cow.
Sign on the side of the Chicago Varnish Company Building depicting Harry Caray, circa 1998

"Holy cow!" (and similar) is an exclamation of surprise used mostly in the United States, Canada, Australia and England. It is a minced oath or euphemism for "Holy Christ!" Holy Cow! dates to at least 1905.[1] The earliest known appearance of the phrase was in a tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor: "A lover of the cow writes to this column to protest against a certain variety of Hindu oath having to do with the vain use of the name of the milk producer. These profane exclamations, "holy cow!" and, "By the stomach of the eternal cow!"" [2] The phrase was used by baseball players at least as early as 1913[3] and probably much earlier.[4] The phrase appears to have been adopted as a means to avoid penalties for using obscene or indecent language and may have been based on a general awareness of the holiness of cows in some religious traditions.[5]

From the Dictionary of American Slang (1960):[6]

"Holy Buckets!" Equiv. to "Holy cats!" or "Holy Mike!" both being euphemisms for "Holy Christ!". This term is considered to be very popular among teenagers, and most teens claim it is definitely a very popular phrase. It is also the common oath and popular exclamation put into the mouths of teenagers by many screenwriters, and, is universally heard on radio, television, and in the movies. It was first popularized by the "Corliss Archer" series of short stories, television programs, and movies, which attempted to show the humorous, homey side of teenage life.

Expressions such as "Holy buckets!", "Holy underwear!", etc. also employ a play-on-words, "holy" implying "riddled with holes".

Paul Beale (1985), however, in revising Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Catch Phrases: British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day cites a different origin:[7]

The original 'Captain Marvel' and 'Batman' oaths, 'holy (something harmless),' were in turn spoofed in the later 20th century by whatever seemed relevant to the situation. Nigel Rees, in Very Interesting... But Stupid: Catchphrases from the World of Entertainment, 1980, instances "holy flypaper!", "holy cow!", "holy felony!", "holy geography!", "holy schizophrenia!", "holy haberdashery!", etc., and adds, "The prefix 'holy' to any exclamation was particularly the province of Batman and [his boy assistant] Robin, characters created by Bob Kane and featured in best-selling comic books for over thirty years before they were portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward in the TV film series.

"Holy cow!" became associated with several baseball broadcasters. Harry Caray, who was the broadcaster for the St. Louis Cardinals (1945-1969), Oakland Athletics (1970), Chicago White Sox (1971-1981), and Chicago Cubs (1982-1997), began using it early in his career, in order to prevent himself from lapsing into vulgarity.[8] New York Yankees shortstop and announcer Phil Rizzuto was also well known for the phrase; when the Yankees honored him following his retirement, the ceremony included a real cow with a halo prop on its head. 1950s Milwaukee Braves broadcaster Earl Gillespie was also known for this expression.

The phrase may have originated with (and certainly was introduced to the baseball lexicon by) reporter and broadcaster Halsey Hall, who worked in Minneapolis from 1919 until his death in 1977. According to Paul Dickson, New Orleans radio announcer Jack Holiday also used the phrase on broadcasts of the minor-league New Orleans Pelicans in the 1930s.[9]

The cartoon strip Common Grounds was originally titled Holey Crullers, a play on this catchphrase.

See also

Look up Holy cow in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. Brown, Peter Jensen. "Holy Cow! Hinduism and Baseball". Retrieved 15 May 2014.
  2. The Minneapolis Journal. November 24, 1905. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. Popick, Barry. "The Big Apple". Retrieved 15 May 2014.
  4. Brown, Peter Jensen. "Holy Cow! Hinduism and Baseball". Retrieved 15 May 2014.
  5. Brown, Peter Jensen. "Holy Cow! Hinduism and Baseball". Retrieved 15 May 2014.
  6. Wentworth, Harold; Flexner, Stuart B. (1960). Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Crowell. p. 264. OCLC 318952.
  7. Partridge, Eric (1986). Paul Beale, ed. A Dictionary of Catch Phrases: British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 193. ISBN 0-415-05916-X.
  8. Caray, Harry; Verdi, Bob (1989). Holy Cow!. New York: Villard. ISBN 0-394-57418-4.
  9. Dickson, Paul (1999). The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary. San Diego: Harcourt Brace. p. 254. ISBN 0-15-600580-8.
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