If you’ve seen Anchorman, you’ve heard this phrase before: Will Farrell, playing the legendary reporter Ron Burgundy, comically utters it along with a string of other silly sayings while warming up his vocal cords before delivering the news. But it wasn’t made up just for the movie. When was this expression first used, and what does it mean? Keep reading to find out.
What Does How Now Brown Cow Mean?
This post will read a little differently than other Common Phrases blogs here at The Word Counter, because the expression is actually a nonsense phrase without any real meaning. That’s right, it doesn’t mean anything at all! (It is sometimes used as a fun greeting, however; more below.)
The phrase was once widely used in elocution training, and is still sometimes repeated today in real-world settings like that of the fictionalized set of Anchorman—by reporters, actors, and other performers who speak in front of the public. Indeed, elocution is the study of formal speech, including pronunciation, tone, and style, and of clear and effective public speaking. How now brown cow helps specifically with rounded vowel sounds, called such because in order to say them, we round our lips. Because the phrase rhymes, it is catchy and easy to remember.
Since actors and performers would repeat the phrase when warming up before a show, they often used it as a playful greeting with one another. Sometimes how now brown cow is used in such a way today, as a synonym for a salutation such as what’s up. In fact, how now on its own is an old-fashioned way of asking what’s happening or how are things. It dates at least to Shakespearean times; Shakespeare used the informal greeting in his plays. And so, it makes sense that the entire phrase, although actually meaningless, came to be used as a sort of hello.
You may be familiar with other elocution exercises as well, including the rain in Spain stays mostly in the plain (sometimes said as the rain in Spain falls mostly on the plain). Musical fans will know this rhyme from My Fair Lady and the song “The Rain in Spain.” Characters Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering give the play’s protagonist (or main character), Eliza Doolittle, speech lessons in an effort to help her get rid of her accent. Once she’s able to say this phrase properly, with long “a” vowel sounds, the three break into the song. The musical number also includes the tongue-twisting elocution exercise in Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen.
The Origin of the Saying
Some language experts date the expression how now brown cow back to 1926. Others put its first use a bit later, citing a 1942 article in the Maryland newspaper The Capital:
“Laird Cregar, now contributing his booming voice to ‘Ten Gentlemen from West Point’: explains how he got it. When he first tried out for the Pasadena Community Playhouse his voice wouldn’t carry past the front rows. Coach Belle Kennedy had him declaim How, Now, Brown Cow? and The Rain in Spain Still Stains—over and over.”
It’s clear from its mention in the article, however, that the expression was known and in use as an elocution exercise before that date.
Some language historians posit it dates all the way back to the 1700s and Scotland, where the phrase brown cow on its own purportedly meant either a barrel of beer or just simply beer. They offer that people could order up another round by saying how now brown cow.
And there is evidence of this. Scottish poet and playwright Allan Ramsay used brown cow to mean beer in his work The Gentle Shepherd: A Scots Pastoral Comedy, published in 1725:
“While the young brood sport on the green,
The auld anes think it best,
With the Brown Cow to clear their een,
Snuff, crack, and take their rest.”
Grammar Lessons in How Now Brown Cow
How now brown cow is an example of assonance. Assonance refers to the repetition of vowel sounds, which creates a sort of alternative type of rhyme and is widely used in poetry, and in verse specifically. In addition to rhyme, assonance gives a line rhythm and harmony, which is why it’s a favorite literary tool of poets. In the case of how now brown cow, it’s the “ow” that gets repeated and makes each word in the expression have the same sound.
Take this line from poet E. E. Cummings as another example of assonance: “On a proud round cloud in white high night.” Both the “ou” and “i” sounds are repeated and give the line a real sense of flow and musicality, as mentioned above.
Interestingly, the “ow” sound repeated in how now brown cow is known as a diphthong, a word that comes from Greek and references a complex vowel sound. A diphthong begins with the sound of one vowel and ends with the sound of another, all within the same syllable. As you know, typically each vowel has its own short sound and long sound. But in a diphthong, a vowel forms an entirely new sound, usually because it’s working together with another vowel. The vowels o and u together also create a sound similar to “ow,” as in bound and house.
How now brown cow was once widely used as an exercise in elocution teaching, a phrase a person could repeat to help with their speech. Although it is inherently meaningless, it is sometimes used and can be used as a casual greeting, similar to how’s it going or what’s up. Grammatically speaking, the saying uses assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds. The repeated vowel sounds are diphthongs.
PS: While you may have been able to order up a beer in 18th century Scotland by asking for a brown cow, if you were to order a brown cow at a restaurant today, you’d get an ice cream float. Different versions of the float exist: It’s usually root beer with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup, or root beer with chocolate ice cream. But it can also refer to a Coke float as well. A purple cow combines grape soda and vanilla ice cream, while a pink cow mixes, you guessed it, vanilla ice cream and strawberry soda. We’d say yum, but perhaps should say moo instead?!