Holy Cow

holy cow chips

Holy cow!‘ is an exclamation of surprise used mostly in the United States, Canada, Australia and England. It is a minced oath or euphemism for ‘Holy Christ!’ Similar expressions such as ‘Holy buckets’ and ‘Holy underwear’ employ a play-on-words, ‘holy’ implying ‘riddled with holes.’

According to the ‘Dictionary of American Slang’ (1960): ‘It is also the common oath and popular exclamation put into the mouths of teenagers by many screenwriters, and, is universally heard on radio, television, and in the movies. It was first popularized by the ‘Corliss Archer’ series of short stories, television programs, and movies, which attempted to show the humorous, homey side of teenage life.’

However, ‘A Dictionary of Catch Phrases’ cites a different origin: ‘The original ‘Captain Marvel’ and ‘Batman’ oaths, ‘holy (something harmless),’ were in turn spoofed in the later 20th century by whatever seemed relevant to the situation. Nigel Rees, in ‘Very Interesting… But Stupid: Catchphrases from the World of Entertainment,’ 1980, instances ‘holy flypaper,’ ‘holy cow,’ ‘holy felony,’ ‘holy geography,’ ‘holy schizophrenia,’ ‘holy haberdashery,’ etc., and adds, ‘The prefix ‘holy’ to any exclamation was particularly the province of Batman and [his boy assistant] Robin, characters created by Bob Kane and featured in best-selling comic books for over thirty years before they were portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward in the TV film series.’

‘Holy cow!’ became associated with several baseball broadcasters. Harry Caray, who was the broadcaster for the St. Louis Cardinals (1945-1969), Oakland Athletics (1970), Chicago White Sox (1971-1981), and Chicago Cubs (1982-1997), began using it early in his career, in order to prevent himself from lapsing into vulgarity. He explained the details in his autobiography, which was co-written with Bob Verdi and titled ‘Holy Cow!’ New York Yankees shortstop and announcer Phil Rizzuto was also well known for the phrase. When the Yankees honored ‘Scooter’ Rizzuto decades after he retired, the ceremony included a real cow with a halo prop on its head. 1950s Milwaukee Braves broadcaster Earl Gillespie was also known for this expression.

The phrase may have originated with (and certainly was introduced to the baseball lexicon by) reporter and broadcaster Halsey Hall, who worked in Minneapolis from 1919 until his death in 1977. According to Paul Dickson, New Orleans radio announcer Jack Holiday also used the phrase on broadcasts of the minor-league New Orleans Pelicans in the 1930s.

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