Dear word Detective: end the years I have used the expression “I said him how the cow ate the cabbage!” which ns picked increase somewhere. Currently an Aussie friend desires to recognize what it means. I recognize what I mean when ns say it, but wonder what its beginning is. — Jo Nicholas.

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that ain't right.

That’s a an excellent question, and one the has, fortunately, a definite answer. That’s not always the case when it pertains to folk sayings, some of which rotate out to be so obscure that the origin may never it is in known. Ns remember hunting for the origin of (or even a meaningful explanation of) the 19th century phrase “to stick one’s spoon in the wall” (meaning “to die”) a few years ago. Ns never found it, and that phrase has actually been rattling roughly in the back of mine mind ever since.

“To call someone just how the cow ate the cabbage” means to tell the person the unvarnished truth, also if the human would fairly not hear it. That can also mean to state one’s opinion forcefully or come “tell who off” (“The mechanic had actually been jerking me approximately for weeks, promising the every new repair would settle the problem, for this reason I ultimately told him how the cow ate the cabbage and also drove home”).

“How the cow ate the cabbage” is a individual saying the the southern US, most regularly heard in Texas and Arkansas, and probably dates earlier to at least the 1940s. It originates from the punchline come a joke the would, in the period, have actually been taken into consideration at least slightly “off-color.” below goes:

A circus had actually arrived in a small town, and also one morning among the elephants controlled to escape. The fugitive pachyderm do its means to the backyard garden of an elderly (and really near-sighted) woman, wherein it started hungrily uprooting her cabbages with its trunk and eating them. Alert by the apparition in she garden, the woman referred to as the police, saying, “Sheriff, there’s a large cow in my garden pulling up mine cabbages with its tail!” “What’s the cow doing through them?” that asked, come which the mrs replied, “You wouldn’t believe me if i told you!”

Hey, I never ever said the joke was in reality funny. In any type of case, the unique alliterative “to call someone how the cow ate the cabbage” quickly happened a southern catchphrase meaning “to tell someone a truth they don’t desire to hear” (which, of course, is specifically what the woman in the hoax refuses to do). In the “tell someone off” sense it also carries the rude implicit of informing someone where they can stow the issue or thing of contention.

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Incidentally, in the 19th and also early 20th century, the only ar where residents of tiny towns in the us were likely to see a real live elephant to be in simply the kind of small traveling circus discovered in this joke, whereby the elephant was the large attraction. So prevalent was this small-town pachyderm-mania that by about 1835 “to watch the elephant” had come to be a catchphrase definition “to suffer all the there is come see.” A darker sense arose a few years later, in which “to have actually seen the elephant” was used to mean “to be worldly, no much longer innocent, to have learned a hard lesson.” By the moment of the polite War, “to check out the elephant” had concerned mean specifically “to suffer combat for the very first time” and thus to have learned the brutal truth around war.