The Grammarphobia Blog

On cows and cowlicks

Q: You were asked on WNYC about the origin of the word “cowlick.” I have no evidence to cite, but I’ve always assumed the word comes from the appearance of a newborn calf licked dry by its mother. The calf’s hair stands up in swirls rather than lying flat as it naturally will a few hours later.

A: Several listeners e-mailed this explanation and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s on the money, but I couldn’t verify the calf angle in any of the language references that I usually go to.

The word “cowlick,” which refers to a wayward tuft of hair that won’t lie flat, first appeared in print back in 1598, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was in an English translation of an Italian treatise on art: “The lockes or plaine feakes of haire called cow-lickes, are made turning upwards.” (A “feake,” according to the OED, is a “dangling curl of hair.” )

Most of the language sources I’ve checked believe a cowlick does indeed have something to do with the way hair looks after being licked by a cow, but none of them refer specifically to a cow’s licking a calf.

The OED notes, however, that the term “calf-lick” means pretty much the same as “cowlick,” which may give credence to your explanation, though the evidence isn’t quite hair-raising.

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