Pity the poor cow. They give us milk and cheese, meat and leather, are the source of sustenance and prosperity. They are venerated in some cultures yet treated like so much merchandise and with a flagrant lack of humanity in others. Adding insult to injury, the word ‘cow’ is never used as a compliment.
‘La vache’ expresses surprise in French. Whether a ‘wow’ or a ‘damn’, either positive or negative. It is slang but not vulgar.
However, to say someone or something is ‘vache’ means it’s not nice. Nasty, mean, tough… Arrête d’être vache! Stop being a cow!
To do something mean to someone is to ‘faire une vacherie’. It seems somehow unjust that the language always attributes the feminine gender to such behaviour. I’ve seen it in both men and women. Note that in French, however, it is ‘une vache’ but ‘un boeuf’.
Until recently I thought these were just different names for male and female. I did not know that milk cows (‘vache laitière’, not to be confused with ‘vache à lait’…) are a completely different subset of the bovine species from beef cattle. Ah, the ignorance of the city mouse!
However, to be really mean and horrible takes being a cow a step further.
In my early days in the French corporate world, a colleague pulled me aside and told me to watch myself around so-and-so. “Attention,” she said, “C’est une peau de vache.“
“A cow skin? Whatever does that mean?” I asked. Turns out that this is worst kind of person, the one who will smile to your face and stab you in the back as soon as you’re not looking. Worse, they will go to any length to get what they want.
Yet the poor cow’s hide makes such a lovely chair!
Aside from having their name so often taken in vain, the French cow’s life is not so bad. We have many small, family-run farms where just a few cattle graze in the fields.
Perhaps this is why the most famous of French cows is always smiling. The cheesy laughing cow of course!
Do you have a favourite expression involving cows?