avium concentus in agris (leopold_paula_b) wrote in linguaphiles,
avium concentus in agris

Why Are Cows So Hungry?

Annemarie Schimmel in "Die drei Versprechen des Sperlings" says that the Arabic term for extreme hunger is ju' al-baqar, literally "hunger of the cow". She explains that the cow symbolizes insatiability and quotes a poem by Rumi: There is a small green island where one white cow lives alone, a meadow of an island. The cow grazes until nightfall, full and fat, but during the night she panics and grows thin as a single hair. "What will I eat tomorrow? There's nothing left!" By dawn the grass has grown up again, waist-high. The cow starts eating and by dark the meadow is clipped short. She is full of strength and energy, but she panics in the dark as before and grows abnormally thin overnight. The cow does this over and over and this is all she does. She never thinks, "This meadow has never failed to grow back. What should I be afraid every night that it won't?" The cow is the bodily soul. The island field is this world where that grows lean with fear and fat with blessing, lean and fat. White cow, don't make yourself miserable with what is to come or not to come.

The ancient Greeks had the same word: boulimia, again: "hunger of the cow". It's not a poetic metaphor, but e.g. sober Xenophon uses the term when his soldiers are too hungry to march on, Anabasis 5.4.7.

Strange that they both independendly picked the cow - and not the wolf or the locust or fire or whatever. Does anybody know why this is? And how do you say in your languages?

Maybe "cow" is just used to intensify the word that follows? Cf. German "Schweinegeld", "Schweinearbeit" etc. - literally "money of the pig", "work of the pig" - just means "a lot of money, work". Of course, this explanation doesn't satisfy my cow-hunger for stories.
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It's quite literal - cows and other ruminants like sheep do have to eat nearly constantly as there is not much calorific value in grass. They eat it, then it gets regurgitated from the first of their four parts of the stomach and they chew the cud, swallow and repeat, so they are constantly chewing.
Though in English we generally say "hungry enough to eat a horse" or in the UK ask if someone is worried about rationing again (food was rationed from WWII until the 1950s).
I know, but they look so placid, don't they? Not ravenous at all!
PS: Which doesn't mean that I don't believe you. You're probably right.
This farm girl says yes. Cows are always hungry. Especially milk cows. And beef cattle too, though less urgently.
Agreed - they spend all day bloody eatin g.

And pulling all the grass up with their tongues, which is why it has to be long grass
The above answer seems reasonable. In addition, during the formative period of Greek and Arabic the speakers were primarily pastoralists.
Aww, I would have preferred a legend or a fairytale. Well, at least there are Pharao's seven lean kine:
My father used to say "hungry as a hunter" (Australian). I don't know if people still say that.
I can't imagine that phrase ever being used in the States. There is so much available game here (particularly white-tailed deer) that you would have to be a bloody incompetent to ever go hungry.
The hunger of a cow could also be seen as the ability of the herdsman to feed cattle. The abundance of cattle would require the land to sustain such stock.
In my experience any animal that is nursing acts more aggressively than anything you've seen before when she's hungry. It's kind of frightening.
Also, cows lose weight shockingly fast when they don't get enough to eat. Not overnight, but you can see it in a few days.
I add one thought: In cultures, where the soil isn't fertile and greenfields are rare, cows aren't as easy to feed as goats etc.


July 27 2014, 21:03:48 UTC 2 years ago Edited:  July 27 2014, 21:23:54 UTC

In Russian it's "as hungry as a wolf / dog". Cows are not associated with hunger. Pastures are in abundance over here. I think it's wolves (or stray dogs) because in wintertime they do not hibernate like many other animals. Interestingly, there is another interesting term associated with dogs and that is собачий холод (lit. dog frost) which translates as extremely cold weather. I would say собачий is an intensifier, usually in the negative sense, like dog hunger, dog frost or dog work, something really extreme. But it wouldn't work with money as in Schweinegeld. In Russian it would be "mad money".
I don't hear this as much anymore, but it used to be "hungry as a bear" in English, for exactly the opposite reason as the wolf in Russian. That is, it refers to the hunger of a bear coming out of hibernation, not having eaten all winter.