English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Ruminations on chewing the cud

Q: Some sources list “cud” as an uncountable noun while others say it’s countable. What’s your opinion?

A: A countable or count noun, as you know, is one that can be modified by an indefinite article (“a” or “an”) or a number: “a book,” “three dogs,” “seven dollars,” etc.

A mass or uncountable noun represents something that can’t be counted—a substance, a quality, an abstract idea, and so on. In ordinary usage, it’s singular and not modified by indefinite articles or numbers, like “water,” “fragility,” and “happiness.”

“Cud” is a substance (partly digested food that’s chewed again), so it’s a singular mass noun in the ordinary sense: “The cow seems contented to chew its cud.”

But the plural “cuds” is sometimes used, especially by agricultural writers, when referring to more than one cow (“the Jerseys were chewing their cuds”) or to several instances of cud chewing by a single cow (“the ailing Holstein spit out three of her cuds”).

We’ve checked seven standard dictionaries, and all the examples given use “cud” as a mass noun and refer to a singular cow chewing its singular cud.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary and farming journals have examples of multiple cows chewing multiple cuds. And the journals also have examples of a single cow chewing multiple cuds.

The OED entry for “cud” has this definition: “The food which a ruminating animal brings back into its mouth from its first stomach, and chews at leisure.” The word usually appears, the OED adds, in the verbal phrase “to chew the cud.”

The word “cud” is derived from old Germanic sources meaning glue or a glutinous substance. It’s been part of our language since Old English, and was later adapted to mean anything held in the mouth and chewed repeatedly, such as chewing tobacco.

As John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the word “quid,” which means a plug of chewing tobacco, is a variant of “cud.”

The OED’s examples for written uses of “cud” date back to about the year 1000. In most of them, the noun is in the singular, “cud,” but there are plural examples too, like these:

“The whiles his flock their chawed cuds do eate.” (From a poem by Edmund Spenser, Virgil’s Gnat, 1591.)

“They … began grazing and chewing their cuds.” (From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, 1852.)

We notice that all the uses of “cuds” in the OED refer to plural animals. But in checking journals devoted to cattle raising and dairy farming, we find both “cud” and “cuds,” with the plural used to refer to multiple instances of cud chewing.

In one farm journal, a sick cow “frequently spit out her cuds”; in another, a cow “was chewing her cuds all right.”

As you know, there’s more than one way to “chew the cud.” As far back as the 14th century, the phrase has been used in a figurative sense to mean to meditate, ponder, or reflect.

We like this 18th-century example from Tobias Smollett’s novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771): “I shall for some time continue to chew the cud of reflection.”

And of course to meditate or turn something over in one’s mind is to ruminate.

As you probably suspect, the verb “ruminate” literally means to chew the cud. Its etymological ancestor is the Latin rumen (gullet), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

A “ruminant” is an animal, like a sheep or cow or goat, that gets nutrients from plant roughage by chewing it, then swallowing it so fermentation can take place, then regurgitating and chewing it again.

Chambers says we owe both “ruminate” and “ruminant,” as well as the Latin verb ruminare (to chew the cud or to think over), to a prehistoric Indo-European root, reconstructed as reu-, that had a humble meaning—to belch.

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