Until the cows come home

Example in use: “When will you be finished with that presentation you’ve been working on all week?” “Not until the cows come home! I keep changing my mind on what I should say and the project is so complicated that it feels impossible to put into a form that everyone can understand. I’ll be working on it all next week too at this speed!”

Meaning: a very long time often suggesting that something may never happen or is an activity which is or feels useless.

Possible German equivalent: bis zum Gehtnichtmehr

Possible origin: Cows are known for being very slow, deliberate creatures who wander back to the farm from their pastures at the end or beginning of each day for milking. So, if you have to wait for them to come back, you are going to be waiting some time.

The expression has been in use in the English language for around 400 years according to sources. The play, The Scornful Lady, from 1610 quotes, “Kiss till the cows come home.” The same authors also used the almost identical phase, “Drink till the cows come home,” around the same time suggesting that it was in general use.

It appears likely that the phrase could also have come to England from Scotland due to the practice of leaving the cows out on grazing land in the Highlands for the summer. When there is not enough grass at the end of the long season, they will find their way back home to their farm. Again, this shows that the idea is that you are waiting a long time for them.

Many idioms or expressions are used in comedic wordplay because they can be instantaneously recognised and understood. Groucho Marx was known for this type of comedy and in his 1933 film, Duck Soup, he jokes, "I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I'll dance with the cows and you come home."

Cow / kaʊ

Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.