The plural of cow is…

Here’s a good language trivia question. Maybe you know it. It usually goes something like this:

What’s the one word in the English language whose singular form shares no letters with its plural form?

If you think about it, you might come up with “I / we,” or “me / us.” They’re correct. But the word this question is usually looking for is cow. In modern English, we use cattle as the plural. But there’s an obscure plural form, kine.

I’ve known this word for some years – I learned it in the context of the trivia question. But a month or two ago I came across it in print, in a work of fiction. It’s set in 1660’s England, in a relatively isolated village that is visited by the plague. The story is told largely in first person, and at one point the main narrative character makes this observation:

“The farmers are become too few to gather in their grain or milk their kine.” – Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks. pg. 158.

Knowing the word, it didn’t stump me. But seeing it in print caused me to raise an eyebrow. The author had made reasonably good attempts to make her 17th century English village and its inhabitants appear authentic (I stress “appear,” because on a number of occasions I felt I was being fed images tailored to meet reader expectations, not necessarily to present historical accuracy). This turn of phrase, however, seemed gratuitous.

Prior to coming across it here, the only use in print I was aware of was in Tolkien (he used it several times, in both The Hobbit and the Lord of the The Rings, and likely in the Silmarillion, although I can’t provide exact page numbers). Tolkien was an archaist (there’s another word you don’t get to use every day), so it’s not surprising he’d use it, especially in a fantasy work. Sources tell me he was also something of a linguist, probably fluent in Welsh, Scottish, and Old English so, again, it’s not unexpected that he’d have such a word in his vocabulary.

Yet I wondered still. Is it really an English word? Or was it just a flourish, used only by Tolkien and a few others; a word similar in nature to etui, which outside of crossword puzzles has no reason for existence. So I dug further. And by further, I mean poking through some academic databases that I have access to, such as InfoTrac and EBSCOhost.

Surprisingly (or not?) I was only able to find a grand total of one relevant reference (there are other definitions of kine unrelated to livestock, and so discounted). That was in a 2007 Milton Quarterly item about Milton’s use of kine in Paradise Lost. At least my list of sourced uses had grown: we can add Milton to the list of literary users.

But was kine even a commonly known word in Milton’s day? Or was it obscure, pedantic, somewhat contrived, even then? I’d begun to smell something suspicious very early in this search, and the Milton article did little to clear the air. This is from the abstract:

This article analyzes the symbolism of kine as used in the context of John Milton’s poetry. As the plural of cow, kine has an antique flavor by Milton[‘s day]. (Karen Edwards)

(For those interested, the searchable Paradise Lost tells me that Milton used the word only twice in that poem, once each in books IX and XI.)

So while we’ve pushed the documented first use of kine back a bit (OED lists a use from 1800, while Milton was writing Paradise Lost in the 1650s and 1660s), even this Milton scholar is implying that the poet’s use was deliberately meant to invoke the archaic.

The plot thickens.

At this point, my research and instincts were ready to come to a negative conclusion about kine. Granted, that conclusion would be speculative, but it’s logical and supportable by the available evidence.

Yet I dug a little deeper. Where else might we expect to encounter this word? As it turns out, Edwards alludes to one more source: we can find kine in the King James bible as well (21 instances, 8 of them in Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41). Obscure as the word might be, clearly it was known, at least among the literati. This also pushes the earliest citation back to 1611, nearly 200 years earlier than what OED shows.

What, then, have we learned? For one thing, kine appears to have already been an obscure word four centuries ago. It hasn’t gained any traction since.

Prior to those uses (King James, Milton), however, it doesn’t show up more frequently in the written record, but less. To me, that’s a sign that the word wasn’t just on its way out, but that it had never been on its way in to begin with. Even more telling: the other plural of cow cattle— shows up in records in the modern sense (plural of cow) nearly one hundred years earlier, and nearly three hundred years earlier in a generic and still-evolving sense (applied as a plural for nearly any livestock). If cattle was already the typical plural before 1600, we can assume that kine had already lost the fight and fallen into obscurity well before.

Kine still won’t be a word that many of us encounter on a regular basis. If at all. It’s got a taint of pretentiousness to it, so it’s probably best to avoid it. Leave it be, consigned to a shadowy existence in crossword puzzles, trivia questions, and obscure scholarly journals. Most of us have lived our lives well enough without it so far; our days won’t feel any less rich due to its continued absence.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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5 Responses to The plural of cow is…

  1. Addendum: It was a bit lazy of me to not point out that “cows” is also an acceptable plural form. “Cattle” usually means any herd, regardless of gender; “cows” would be expressly females.
    Also, the OED lists numerous older citations for “kine,” with various spellings (they’re listed in the entry for “cow,” which is how I missed them). They’ve got me beat by far, and include the Milton uses I noted (but not the King James). However, I still think it’s safe to assume “kine” (by any spelling) has been essentially a dead word since at least the 16th century, except in dialect.

  2. Pingback: Your editor and your anachronisms | thebettereditor

  3. Seb Motala says:

    Henry IV Part I, Act 2, Scene 4 – Falstaff: If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved.

    It does appear kine was well known in the in the 16th/17th centuries especially as Shakespeare’s plays were written for the mass audience (and kings too), and the language generally reflects the language of the time.

    • Seb Motala says:

      In addition, we do not use cattle as the plural of cows in modern English. Cows specifically refer to females whereas cattle is more general referring to cows and bulls. However you are right in that the general population, at least in England, uses cattle as the plural of cows but perhaps it is time we brought back the word kine into modern usage.

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