Q From Srimanta Roy: I couldn’t find holy cow on your Web site. What can you tell me about this expression?
A Contrary to popular belief, the site doesn’t yet contain items about every word and phrase in English. But I’m working on it.
Holy cow is one of a variety of expressions starting with holy; others include holy Moses and holy smoke, both indicating astonishment or consternation. A difficult person may be a holy terror or a holy horror; a priest or chaplain may be called a holy Joe and a hypocritically pious person a holy Willie.
Holy cow is definitely American, dating from the early years of the twentieth century. Since there are also references at the time to literal holy cows in India, we might assume that’s the source, jokingly taken over as an imprecation on the model of the others. But examples are known of cow! on its own as an exclamation from as far back as 1863, so holy cow might at least in part have been an elaboration of that. (However, having a cow, becoming unduly upset, only dates from the 1960s.)
Some Americans may associate it with two baseball announcers, Harry Caray and Phil Rizzuto. They popularised it but they didn’t invent it, although early examples are tied to the game. The Lincoln Daily News wrote in June 1914: “Denver fans have coined an imitation of Charley Mullen’s pet expression. Instead of ‘holy cow,’ the bugs in the camp of the Bears yell ‘sacred bessie’.” The year before, a report in the Oakland Tribune said, “Harry Wolverton assigned ‘Holy Cow’ Peters to the job of umpiring one of the Regular-Yannigan contests at Marysville last week and Peters is still alive.”
Both these items suggest that the phrase was by then well known, though its ultimate origin is obscure.