Q From Meyer Garber, Bellport, NY: I have been trying for many years without success to find out where bossy, the affectionate nickname for a cow, at least in the US, comes from. If you can find anything on this word I thank you very much in advance.
A Most people know bossy for a person who’s domineering or fond of giving people orders. That’s an adjective from boss, a word which derives from the Dutch baas, meaning “master”. It was taken to the New World by the Dutch about 1650.
However, we’re fairly sure that the bovine sense you mention isn’t linked to that. Nor does it come from a modification of the proper name Bessy or Betsy, as some have suggested. The true story is somewhat elusive and there are two possible explanations.
One theory has it that the noun is from West Country dialect. The word boss is known from the eighteenth century, sometimes as buss or buss-calf or bussa, a name that was given to a young, unweaned calf. It’s suggested that this word was taken to North America by some of the pioneering immigrants. The other theory suggests that bossy might have come from the Latin bos for an ox or cow (it’s the source of the word bovine that I used earlier). Just possibly, the West Country dialect word might also have come from the Latin term, though it seems an obscure and literary word to have been taken up in dialect. If that theory is right, no matter which of the two theories you pick, you end up in Latin.
As usual, nobody’s prepared to put any money on one or the other. Bossy is too poorly recorded in its early years for it to be clear what was going on in people’s minds at the time.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
E31; Old fogey; Ampersand; Phizzog; Horse creature; Get one’s goat; Mammock; Mx; Stepney; Vape; No names, no pack drill; Bridegroom; Lilly-low; The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans; Boot and trunk; Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!