until the cows come home

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English[edit]

Cattle in General Terán, Nuevo León, Mexico

Alternative forms[edit]

Etymology[edit]

Possibly from the fact that cattle let out to pasture may be expected to return for milking the next morning; thus, for example, a party that goes on “until the cows come home” is a very long one.

Alternatively, assuming a Scottish origin, the phrase may derive from the fact that cattle in the Highlands are put out to graze on the common where grass is plentiful. They stay out for months before scarcity of food causes them to find their way home in the autumn for feeding.

Reportedly, the first attestation is from The Times (Scotland):[1]

  • 1829, The Times:
    If the Duke will but do what he unquestionably can do, and propose a Catholic Bill with securities, he may be Minister, as they say in Scotland “until the cows come home.”

Prepositional phrase[edit]

until the cows come home

  1. (idiomatic) For a very long period of time.
    You can crank the engine until the cows come home, but it won’t start without fuel.
    • 1952 March 10, Justice Felix Frankfurter (dissenting), Sacher v. United States 343 U.S. 1, Supreme Court of the United States, pages 69–70:
      Now I can't stop lawyers from calling me names and saying I am guilty of judicial misconduct and that I am prejudiced, and this, that and the other thing, and you can keep that up until the cows come home; that is all right, and I take no umbrage at it.
    • 2001, Barbara Deckert, Sewing 911: Practical and Creative Rescue for Sewing Emergencies, Newtown, Ct.: Taunton Press, ISBN 978-1-56158-444-4, page 58:
      Particularly if you are sewing synthetics, you can press until the cows come home, but facings may not stay put.
    • 2003, Clive James, “The Meaning of Recognition”, in Australian Book Review, number 248–257, page 27:
      But I could quote from Animal Warmth and Up On All Fours until the cows come home. I could quote until the cows came home about the cows not coming home.
    • 2007, Charles Coddington, “1:20 PM (Not that Anyone was Concerned about the Time)”, in Life in Cythera: The College Campus Anti-war Rally: A Novel, Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, ISBN 978-0-595-45717-5:
      The fact remains that the CPD [Cythera Police Department], when asked directly, always maintained that, yes, they were a model of civility and efficiency and fair play and, yes, they were very deliberate in upholding their reputations and, yes, they would continue to do so "until the cows came home." Sadly, "indefinite future" is a highly flexible term and, for the Cythera Police Department, the cows came home sooner than it expected. The cows came home when the old Chief of Police retired and was replaced by a new Chief, []
    • 2012, Darlene Franklin, A Ranger's Trail (Texas Trails: A Morgan Family series), Chicago, Ill.: Moody Publishers, ISBN 978-0-8024-0587-6:
      She could list Buck's good qualities from now until the cows came home. If the cows came home. If she waited for him to return until the cows came home, she'd never see any of them again.
    • 2014, Tom Weaver, “Robert Dix”, in Earth vs. the Sci-Fi Filmmakers: 20 Interviews, Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland & Company, ISBN 978-0-7864-2210-4, page 77:
      John [Carradine] and I became quite close, we worked in several movies together. He could recite Shakespeare ’til the cows came home [laughs], and he had a heart as big as outdoors.

Usage notes[edit]

The phrase is often used to describe activities regarded as futile or unproductive.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ “Till the cows come home”, in Phrase Finder[1], accessed 30 March 2013.