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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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Dec. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 20 December 2003.