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shameless pleading

How the cow ate the cabbage

In the Gardens of Myopia.

Dear Word Detective: Over the years I have used the phrase “I told him how the cow ate the cabbage!” which I picked up somewhere. Now an Aussie friend wants to know what it means. I know what I mean when I say it, but wonder what its origin is. — Jo Nicholas.

Enjoys cud, mud, and updating her Facebook page.

that ain't right.

That’s a good question, and one that has, fortunately, a definite answer. That’s not always the case when it comes to folk sayings, some of which turn out to be so obscure that the origin may never be known. I remember hunting for the origin of (or even a coherent explanation of) the 19th century phrase “to stick one’s spoon in the wall” (meaning “to die”) a few years ago. I never found it, and that phrase has been rattling around in the back of my mind ever since.

“To tell someone how the cow ate the cabbage” means to tell the person the unvarnished truth, even if the person would rather not hear it. It can also mean to state one’s opinion forcefully or to “tell someone off” (“The mechanic had been jerking me around for weeks, promising that every new repair would fix the problem, so I finally told him how the cow ate the cabbage and drove home”).

“How the cow ate the cabbage” is a folk saying of the southern US, most often heard in Texas and Arkansas, and probably dates back to at least the 1940s. It comes from the punchline to a joke that would, in that period, have been considered at least slightly “off-color.” Here goes:

A circus had arrived in a small town, and one morning one of the elephants managed to escape. The fugitive pachyderm made its way to the backyard garden of an elderly (and very near-sighted) woman, where it began hungrily uprooting her cabbages with its trunk and eating them. Alarmed by the apparition in her garden, the woman called the police, saying, “Sheriff, there’s a big cow in my garden pulling up my cabbages with its tail!” “What’s the cow doing with them?” he asked, to which the woman replied, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you!”

Hey, I never said the joke was actually funny. In any case, the nicely alliterative “to tell someone how the cow ate the cabbage” quickly came to be a Southern catchphrase meaning “to tell someone a truth they don’t want to hear” (which, of course, is exactly what the woman in the joke refuses to do). In the “tell someone off” sense it also carries the rude implication of telling someone where they can stow the matter or object of contention.

Incidentally, in the 19th and early 20th century, the only place where residents of small towns in the US were likely to see a real live elephant was in just the kind of small traveling circus found in this joke, where the elephant was the big attraction. So prevalent was this small-town pachyderm-mania that by about 1835 “to see the elephant” had become a catchphrase meaning “to experience all that there is to see.” A darker sense arose a few years later, in which “to have seen the elephant” was used to mean “to be worldly, no longer innocent, to have learned a hard lesson.” By the time of the Civil War, “to see the elephant” had come to mean specifically “to experience combat for the first time” and thus to have learned the brutal truth about war.

21 comments to How the cow ate the cabbage

  • Gredly Fornicator

    Stick your spoon in the wall, to die. Where did this saying originate?

    It orginated in the Royal Navy and British Army at least by 1825. Then it ment one would have no need of a spoon at mess, that is they were either dead or such.

  • Interesting

    I’ve been misquoting ‘how the cow ate the cabbage’ for years. I’ve been saying, “I showed him where the cow ate the cabbage,” but the meaning is pretty much the same.

  • John Pearson

    I have used this phrase all my life in the sense of telling the unvarnished truth. Often times people look at me like I’ve dropped in from another planet and I’ve had to mumble my way through an explanation. It’s great to finally be able to explain it more or less intelligently (with an emphasis on the less?).

  • bob ferris

    i too have used that expresion for many years, not knowing the real meaning of it. thanks, the day isn’t a total loss.

  • boogie freeze

    A few years ago,I was in an arguement with my ex. After a couple years of hearing me use this expression,to my suprise she said,”you’re always making up little sayings that you pass off as real!” I started laughing cause i’ve heard it all my life here in Louisiana. i think it’s one of those cliches that alot of people just have never heard. I might add though that she wasn’t the “sharpest tool in the shed”…now that one i made up. Silly girl

  • 0uterj0in

    Go see the elephant also meant go conduct business with a prostitute.

  • Steve B.

    I wonder if there is any correlation between the phrase “to see the elephant” and the scene in Tolkein’s “The Two Towers” where Frodo & Sam see the “Oliphaunt,” a creature that had been mythical to them previously, like much of the world outside of their native Shire?

  • texas

    Oops! I’ve been assuming the origin of this saying had to do with the improbability of a cow eating a cabbage because cattle, unlike horses, have no upper front teeth and would not be able to grasp a large spherical object. What’s worse, I’ve been sharing my opinion with older generations of my straigth-laced family for decades. I wonder if any of them were thinking “Sure, thats it!” :)

  • Stan

    I have often used a similar saying, “Show ‘em how the boar eats the cabbage”, meaning “Let’s get after it and show them how it’s meant to be done.”

  • [...] Anyway, because the post explaining it was long and I had no time at the moment, I just saved the link. Today I opened the link and skipped the first few paragraphs, because that’s the way to read a post explaining something, apparently. Because when you do this, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll get so confused by reading the middle paragraph that you’ll get lost, jump to the last paragraph, get even more lost, then you’ll decide to read the opening paragraph but won’t understand a thing, and you’ll finally leave the blog/site clueless as to why in the heck you even opened that in the first place. Or you’ll read a paragraph that will be intriguing enough to have you read the whole post. So here’s the paragraph I chose to read (from the middle, of course) about how the cow ate the cabbage: [...]

  • [...] same warped sense of humor. We laughed a lot about “How the cow ate the cabbage” (meaning found here). But I suspect John would have jumped at the chance to attend qualifying even if we had to strap [...]

  • Dexter

    My Maternal Grandmother from Missouri (born 1907)used the phrase “how the cow ate the cabbage” quite frequently, as did my Father’s Texas parents as well. The reason is not the joke, but rather the biology of the cow.
    If a cow eats cabbage, they start expanding and it’s not a pretty sight, and quite uncomfortable for the cow. Additionally, ranchers would have to place a large syringe into the cow’s stomach to relieve the pressure. Apparently flatulation is not easy for an animal with 4 stomachs (or one stomach with 4 sections).

  • Sheila Johnson

    Wow! I have used this phrase for years. A few years ago I said it to a friend in an email. She was from the west coast. She didnt admit til later that she had to google the phrase out of sheer curiosity at my usage. LOL. I knew what it meant and assumed everyone did, but I googled it to see what she found. This is the link, today I’m sharing it with a new friend, who’d never heard it before either. Its ironic how many people have heard me say it that had no idea what it was supposed to mean and never asked or batted an eye. I’m going to print this today and post it in my office. Thanks for the great detective work!

  • Art Fruncillo

    Just saw this phrase today in relation to the recent (October 2012) presidential debates. Thanks for the great explanation, and by the way, I think the joke is funny!

  • Molly

    My mom and dad (born 1911 and 1914 in PA and lived there all their lives) and my aunts and uncles used this statement all the time. Having lived in Texas many years and never having heard anyone besides me use the phrase, I have a hard time believing that it migrated east – more likely the opposite.

  • Gal

    The saying is NOT merely “how the cow ate the cabbage.” The expanded TEXAS version(s) include, but are not limited to, semblances and/or versions of TEXAS DISCIPLINE. For example: the cause and affect of feeding a cow cabbage is very interesting and should be researched to be believed…, all in all – it is not a very smart thing to do. Your research will tell you why. This priceless adage will certainly be used on someone who needs discipline in taking responsibility for his/her own actions and the consequences of them, i.e., cause and affect or Karma baby, Karma.

    This priceless Texas knowledge goes on and on to include TEXAS JUSTICE as in, “I am taking his bahonkey behind the barn to show him HOW the COW EATS the cabbage.” Take my advice here and never follow anyone behind the barn to see how the cow eats the cabbage. NOT a good idea for more reasons than I have time to explain.

    I wish I had time to go on to explain how this adage also is applied to condolences and sympathies for varying reasons. OR how this adage applies to FAIR WARNINGS or roundabout being fair play.

    I think being Texan is the only real way anyone can truly understand what it means to have cows and cabbage. Anyone else trying to find an origin of such a saying is one leaf shy of a fig tree. SMILING BIG HERE.

  • Paula Marouk

    Wow, my family is from Texas and Oklahoma. They have always said, “How the cow eats corn!” ???

  • Alex Conner

    I am not sure if this had been dealt with, but in 19th century England. A change of residence led to a leather pouch being attached to the wall which held implements, chiefly the spoon. So to stick one’s spoon in the wall means to change residences. And this now means from living to…erm…not so much living.

  • Nell Cote

    So, I am about to have a come to Jesus meeting to tell employees how the cow eats the cabbage. How many points do I get?

  • [...] did it again Got 'cabbage'? Jeffrey R. JonasJRJ ConsultantsCritical Eye Property InspectionsOwatonna, Minnesota, 55060 [...]

  • Darlene Ray

    I’m from the hills of southwestern Virginia and grew up hearing numerous sayings from my
    mother, my grandmother and my aunt. I’d never heard this saying until several years ago
    When I made a new friend who had tons of sayings. She was born in 1919. She, however
    said, how the RABBIT ate the cabbage.

    Have you ever heard of “dear John, send my saddle home”? I’ve never been able to find that
    one.

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