The ox is one of the main animals of the Chinese zodiac, and plays a very important role in Chinese culture and language. But more importantly, the role that the ox plays is not unique to China. We’ve selected 10 cultures and languages and share with you how the ox is represented in them.
Before we get started, we'd like to let you know that all the information from this blog post can be found in our free downloadable ebook: How the Ox is Represented in 10 Cultures and Languages. You'll also find more phrases and examples in the ebook.
There are a number of words used in English to refer to the ox. If you're interested in etymology, and the spread of words throughout languages, what is most interesting is the large-scale diffusion of several of these word roots.
First, the word "ox" is an extremely old word surviving thousands of years from the Proto-Indo-European word "uksḗn". This word survived in the Indo-European language Tocharian, then spoken in modern-day China as "wəkʷsó" which eventually survived in the modern Turkic languages as "öküz". Likewise, Turkic already had a term for a male ox called buqa, which survives in most Central Asian languages, and has jumped language families into Iranian as "بقّه buqqa" and Russian as "бык byk".
Second, Latin had another word for ox called "bōs", which descended from the Proto-Indo-European word "gʷṓws", which was "ku" in Tocharian, which also spread into China in Proto-Sino-Tibetan as "ŋwa", Modern Burmese as "နွား nwa:", Modern Mandarin as "牛 niú", and Southern Min Taiwanese Hokkien as "gû". The word survived into Germanic as "kūz" which is ultimately where German "Kuh" and English "cow" come from.
In both Greek and Italic languages, the first letter /gʷ/ eventually became pronounced as /b/. This is where English gets its Romance-based vocabulary such as "beef" and "bovine" from.
Third, a female cow in Proto-Indo-European was called "woḱéh₂" which survived only in Italic as "wokā" and Indo-Iranian as "waćáH". This word ended up in Latin as "vacca" and Sanskrit as "वशा vaśā́". This is where the French "vache", Spanish and Portuguese "vaca", and the English root "vacci-" such as in "vaccination" derive. The modern Arabic "بَقَرَة baqara" appears to be related, but isn't.
Fourth is the Proto-Indo-European word "táwros". In Indo-European languages, there is something known as a mobile "s", so there are many words that simply add the letter "s-" in a convenient way to create more vocabulary. In this way, the word "táwros" descended into Persian as "ستور sotur" and into North Germanic languages as "þeuraz" and in West Germanic languages as "steuraz" which over time became the English word "steer". What is interesting about the North Germanic pronunciation is that it is even more similar to an even older form of the Proto-Indo-European, which ultimately came from Proto-Semitic "ṯawr" which survives in Arabic as "ثَوْر ṯawr" and Hebrew as "שׁוֹר šōr". Of course it's worth mentioning some other well-known words that descended into the Romance languages: Spanish and Italian "toro", Portuguese "touro", and of course the English zodiac sign "Taurus", which brings us back full circle to the Zodiac.
The word cow or بَقَرَة (baqara) is quite famous and well-known because it’s the name of a chapter in the Quran. The Quran has 114 chapters, and chapters vary a lot in length. Some chapters are only 3 verses, while the longest chapter is 286 verses. Each chapter has a name, and the longest chapter in the Quran is called “The cow”, named after the story about Moses, which was an argument between Moses and the Israelites about finding a murderer.
In Egyptian mythology, Hathor was a cow goddess, and she was the goddess of love, beauty, dancing, music, and fertility.
Hathor's symbol was a cow with a sun disc on top. She was represented as a cow because cows were considered highly valuable animals in ancient Egypt, and among all the domesticated animals, cattle were the most important livestock, and the size of a herd reflected the prestige and importance of the estate or temple that owned them.
ثور (Thawr) is the male ox or bull. This word is also associated with strength and power in Arabic and sometimes stubbornness.
力大如牛 | lì dà rú niú
- Gloss: power-big-as-ox
- What it means: It is used to describe someone who is as strong as an ox.
- Sentence: 她看起來很嬌小，但是力大如牛。
- Pinyin: tā kān qǐ lái hěn jiāoxiǎo dànshi lì dà rú niú
- Translation: She looks tiny, but she is as strong as an ox.
九牛二虎之力 | jiǔ niú èr hǔ zhī lì
- Gloss: nine-oxen-two-tigers-of-power
- What it means: It literally means someone is powerful and strong enough to pull nine oxen and kill two tigers. Now it's used to describe making massive, herculean efforts.
- Sentence 他花了九牛二虎之力才把問題解決。
- Pinyin: tā huāle jiǔniú'èrhǔ zhī lì cái bǎ wèntí jiějué
- Translation: He made herculean efforts to solve the problem.
In Taiwan culture, historically the ox has played a very important role as well. Before the existence of farming tools, farmers used oxen to till the fields, and society developed an intricate relationship with the animal, to the point that you are still likely to find whole families who refuse to eat beef. In most people's minds, the ox is an image of industriousness, strength, perhaps even stubbornness. And although the ox doesn't play this role anymore in modern societies, you may have noticed that the ox survives on in modern language, embedded among our many proverbs and metaphors.
細漢偷挽瓠，大漢偷牽牛 | sè-hàn thau bán pû, tuā-hàn thau khan gû
- Gloss: [when]-small-steal-take-gourds, [when]-big-steal-lead-oxen
- What it means: Those who learn to steal while small will end up being big criminals as adults.
甘願做牛，毋驚無犁通拖 | kam-guān tsò gû, m̄ kiann bô lê thang thua.
- Gloss: [when]-small-steal-take-gourds, [when]-big-steal-lead-oxen
- What it means: It literally means that as a hard-working ox, there's no need to worry that there won't be work to do. If you are willing to endure hardships, you can easily get a job.
The ox in France is a symbol of kindness, calm and peaceful strength. In the peasant world, it designates a land that is abundant in harvests. It is a symbol of fertility and tamed strength. In Christian iconography, the ox denotes humble work. It is considered a beneficial animal, especially since it witnessed the birth of Christ.
On n'est pas des bœufs — We are not oxen
- What it means: In the past, oxen were used for heavy work. When men were asked to do too much hard work, they would say, "We're not oxen." This expression is still used today when one wants to express "You’re asking too much of us".
Fort comme un bœuf — Strong as an ox
- What it means: Being strong as an ox means being very strong. (e.g. ‘Cet homme est fort comme un bœuf !’ English: ‘This man is strong as an ox!’)
Oxen are viewed by Germans similarly with swine: not very intelligent. In fact, calling someone "dumme Kuh" or "blöde Kuh" is not only offensive, but you may also be fined hundreds of Euros.
Ich bin keine Kuh, die man melken kann.
- What it means: I am not a cow that can be milked: I'm not a cash cow, don't take advantage of me.
Beef in Japan was banned for over a thousand years. Japan's Emperor Tenmu (in 675 CE) was highly influenced by Shintoism and Buddhism and officially banned people from eating beef and horse, and it wasn't until the 19th Century when Emperor Meiji ate beef that the ban got lifted.
Since the ox is slow, you can describe a person who acts slowly as 牛の歩み (ushi no ayumi).
Koreans have been influenced by Chinese culture and also observe the Chinese zodiac. In Korean culture, the ox represents hard work, honesty and patience. The year of the ox is meant to be a peaceful and happy year. The ox plays a decisive role in Korean culture, helping the farmer with the fieldwork. The ox has been called a walking safe, with such a high price, it can be sold when a farmer needs money.
못된 송아지 엉덩이에 뿔난다 | motdwen song'aji eongdeong'ie ppulnanda
- What it means: The little ox grows horns on its ass: used to describe an annoying person.
소 뒷걸음 치다 쥐 잡기 | so dwikkeoreum chida jwe japgi
- What it means: The ox stepped backwards and caught the mouse: used to describe one's luck.
In Russian culture the ox is a symbol of power, physical health, stamina, perseverance, but sometimes also stubbornness. There are old sayings like здоров как бык (healthy as an ox) or силён как бык (strong as an ox).
In the past, an ox was an honored creature, the embodiment of strength and manliness. Traditionally, the ox was a sacrificial animal, bones of the sacrificed ox were thought to bring happiness and wealth to the owner.
Although there are not as many expressions in the Russian language with a word-component “ox” in them, there are plenty of these phrases with “cow” in Russian. For example:
Как коро́ве седло́ — Like a saddle on a cow
- What it means: This one is used when someone or something does not fit into a situation or a condition.
- Sentence: Мне маши́на нужна́, как коро́ве седло́
- Translation: I need a car like a cow needs a saddle.
До́йная коро́ва — Milking cow
- What it means: When something or someone is used for profit, both in positive and negative situations. English version — cash cow
- Sentence: iPhone — до́йная коро́ва Apple у́же бо́льше десяти́ лет.
- Translation: iPhone has been Apple’s cash cow for over a decade.
Oxen in Thailand are traditionally seen as the all-purpose beast of burden, but also not that intelligent. The ox has a rather negative connotation in Thai culture. In Thai ควาย | Kwai is a slang word for buffalo and used to call someone stupid and is one of the worst insults.
On the other extreme, due to Thailand's diversity, part of the Thai population is heavily influenced by Chinese Buddhism and Chinese culture. Just like how many Chinese farmers don't eat beef, many Thai farmers don't eat beef, because cows are an important companion for their work.
วัวแก่กินหญ้าอ่อน | wua-gàe gin yâa-òn / wua gɛ̀ɛ gin yâa ɔ̀ɔn
- What it means: A marriage between an older man and a younger woman
วัวหายล้อมคอก | wua hăai lóm kôk / wua hǎai lɔ́ɔm kɔ̂ɔk
- What it means: fixing the stable after the cow is lost: trying to prevent something after it's already happened.
The ox in Turkish represents hard-working, diligent, and strong.
- What it means: cow: hard-working, or with a negative connotation: a bookworm
- Sentence: Çok akıllı ama inek bir öğrenci değil
- Translation: He's a smart student but not always just reading.
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