La vache!

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?


  1. Karen Hemingway · May 14, 2019

    I don’t have a favourite expression but agree that these easy going animals get a bad rap. Even before nursing six children, I always wanted to milk a cow…for years it was on my list of things to do! I attended every school farm trip or visit to the pumpkin patch and apple orchard in the hopes of having the chance. In 2013 my dream became reality at a farm in Surrey BC owned by a friend. It was as good as I thought it would be! Much respect to the humble cow!

    • MELewis · May 14, 2019

      Good for you for realizing that dream! I have never done that but I see them up close often as I walk the dogs. It’s funny to see how curious they are. One of our Frenchies has a mild obsession with farm animals as is always straining at the leash to reach them. To his surprise one day a cow leaned over and licked him right on the nose! 😻

  2. Suzanne et Pierre · May 14, 2019

    I know all of these expressions but I must admit I had forgotten half of them. It is interesting to think that we treat the cows so badly (in terms of our expressions!) Very interesting post. (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · May 14, 2019

      Thanks, Suzanne. I think it is interesting, and probably indicates on some level the value we place on the cow in our culture even if we don’t talk nice to them!

  3. midihideaways · May 14, 2019

    As I child I used to get milk from a farm down the road – we would be allowed to go and watch the cows being milked, and I used to love the smell in the stable. These were cows that would be out in the pastures all day and come back in the evening – not reared intensively but with much respect… And the milk was always delicious!!

    • MELewis · May 14, 2019

      Interesting! Presumably not in France though….where was that?

      • midihideaways · May 18, 2019

        In Germany, Bavaria to be exact…

  4. phildange · May 14, 2019

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the adverb “vachement”, that is daily used to mean “very” and does not suffer from a negative bend : “C’était vachement bien !”
    I’m sure you never heard of our regional show/sport, “la course landaise”, played with “des vaches landaises”, small nervous and quick black cows . The guys, “les écarteurs” do all sorts of acrobatics above and around the running cows .

    • MELewis · May 14, 2019

      Oh, you’re right! How could I forget ‘vachement’? Probably I was in too much of a hurry, as usual… As for your crazy cow races, you underestimate me. I worked for years as a translator and one of my clients was always sending me obscure texts on tourism from various regions. I remember racking my brain to come up with a translation for that one, but probably ended up using the translator’s old trick of just putting it in quotation marks. I always wondered though if it was just for fun or is it cruel in the way of bullfighting? Those photos sure make it look entertaining!

      • phildange · May 14, 2019

        It’s not a fighting, there are no weapons . Les écarteurs have to catch things stuck on the cows, to avoid them with elegance like the bullfighters do, jump above them with their feet in a béret basque, or in a somersault …
        About using “vache” for mean in colloquial French, it has nothing to do with the value our culture places on cows . i wrote a comment some time ago about the origin, it is related to the South-West ha ha . After the Wars of Religions had downsized French population, the first French Bourbon king was crowned under the name of Henri IV . He already was the king of Navarra, across western Pyrenees, he was a Protestant who accepted to convert to Catholicism and brought back peace in the new kingdom “de France et de Navarre” . His family castle is in Pau, 80 kms from my place .
        The only thing is he had to besiege Paris first, and his army’s banners showed a cow’s head . For the Parisians of the time, the cow meant the enemy, and from then the word got its negative connotation .

  5. 355101pkl · May 14, 2019

    It supposedly says in the bible that god gave man dominion over animals. if we take that as a core belief it would also follow that ,god also gave us intelligence be aware that pain, suffering and love is not unique to man. Its plain to see that the message is we need to treat all his creatures with respect .You may not be religious, i am not , but i do believe that we should treat every living thing with respect simply from the viewpoint that life is so unique in the universe . Cows are beautiful where would we be without them?

    • MELewis · May 14, 2019

      I am not religious either but I agree with wholeheartedly.

      • 355101pkl · May 14, 2019

        Of course the bit where I said god is “his”. it. may be otherwise !

  6. Susanne · May 14, 2019

    “Waiting until the cows come home” was a favourite expression of my grandmother’s. I guess it means to wait a long time as cows are slow critters for the most part. They do have lovely eyes though, don’t they? I was really struggling to say something kind about these helpful beasts!

    • MELewis · May 15, 2019

      I remember someone (mother or grandmother?) using that expression too! Also, ‘and another cow flew by’ meaning, as my Brit friends might say, ‘Right, pull the other one?’ They do have lovely eyes and behind them, so much (for me at least) previously unimagined intelligence. 👁👁

  7. Dale · May 14, 2019

    Great post, Melanie! How about: “Le diable est aux vaches”. – meaning, rien ne va plus – all is going to hell in a handbasket.
    P’tite vache – for Cow Brand baking soda 😉
    or petite vache vs grosse vache: petite meaning to be sneaky or hypocritical vs grosse meaning openly detestable, odious.
    Faire la vache, being lazy.

    Seriously, how did cows come to have such a bad rap?

    • phildange · May 14, 2019

      I never heard any of the 3 expressions “Le diable est aux vaches”, “P’tite vache” or “Faire la vache” that you mention . In what tribe do you live ?

      • MELewis · May 14, 2019

        The bilingual ones from the great white north! Differences between Québecois and l’Hexagone?

      • phildange · May 14, 2019

        Oviously a different shape triggers different sounds

      • Dale · May 14, 2019

        I was searching for where using “vache” in all these ways came from and landed on “Le diable est aux vaches” – not that I ever used that expression myself. I have used petite and grosse vache towards deserving women before and we still call it P’tite Vache baking soda even if it’s Arm and Hammer!
        Remember that discussion on chienner? same difference with faire la vache when one feels particularly lazy.
        South shore of Montreal is where I am at 😉

      • phildange · May 14, 2019

        So you exiles developed your own language ? Did you receive a royal license for that ?

      • Dale · May 14, 2019

        I dunno… I’m blaming the farmers – well, for part of them!

      • MELewis · May 15, 2019

        Dale, I’m just glad to have you providing some insights into different expressions that I may encounter in Canada – so as not to make a fool of myself by completely misunderstanding what people are saying in my home country!

      • Dale · May 15, 2019

        Honestly… I laugh when they have those Facebook things on Canadian expressions – 2/3 I know but the others? No clue… they must be used in the Maritimes only!!

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