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Word of the Day: KOE, cow

Zsuzsa told me this afternoon that one of Noah’s favourite songs is: ‘Een koetje en een kalfje’ (A little cow and a little calf). I had never heard this song before, but I must admit it is quite catchy. This is what Zsuzsa and her son are singing:

‘Een koetje en een kalfje
die liepen in de wei.
Toen kwam er een heel dik varkentje voorbij,
dat zei, dat zei, “geef dat kalfje maar aan mij!”
“Nee”, zei de koe, “boeh boeh boeh!”
“Nee”, zei de koe, “boeh boeh boeh!”
“Dat kalfje is van mij!

Here is a rough translation:
A cow and a calf / were walking in the field. / when a very fat pig passed by / which said, which said: “just pass that calf to me!” / “No,” said the cow, “moo moo moo!” (twice) / “That calf belongs to me!”


On closer inspection, it is a weird song, isn’t it? For why would a very fat pig be interested in obtaining a calf. As a playmate? As a snack? Do pigs eat bovine animals? No idea. Or is it just nonsense?

Nonsense or not. I love cows. When I’m on my bike, my heart always jumps for joy when I see a cow. Usually I stop for a while. Very often the cow will stare at me. She recognizes her soul mate, no doubt. I return her stare and experience great happiness when I drown in those big brown eyes. Sometimes she greets me with a happy and longwinded ‘moo’. I moo in return, but in a telepathic way.


Cows and me, it’s a continuing love story. Yes, it has been going on since my toddler years. I’m not alone. It’s an intense love that I share with many of my favourite literary writers. James Joyce, for example, started his ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ (1916) with these memorable fairy story lines:

‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…’

What a wonderful word, ‘moocow’. ‘Moocow’ was written down in 1810 for the first time according to the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘The sheep all baa’d, the asses bray’d, the moo-cows low’d, and Grizzle neigh’d.’ But I suspect it is much older. In Dutch, children must have used ‘koetjeboe’ since time immemorial.


In June 2014 the Dutch Joyce translators Erik Bindervoet and Robbert-Jan Henkes published a new translation of ‘A Portrait’. For reasons beyond my understanding they translated the title as ‘Een zelfportret…’. How can it be a self-portrait? Nonsense! It’s not a self-portrait. But to make matters worse, they perverted ‘moocow’ to a weird and unnecessary ‘kakoetjeboe’ and why? Because, so they say in their afterword, they had used this ‘kakoetjeboe’ before in their translation of Lennon and McCartney’s song ‘I am the Walrus’ (‘goo goo goo job’).

Anyway, let’s return to our ‘moocow’. A KOE is one of the oldest Dutch words. In the tenth century they wrote it as ‘kuo’ or ‘cuo’ (in Middle English ‘cú’) and the plural was ‘cuon’. This plural soon evolved to ‘koeien’ and that’s the word we still use. What do KOEIEN do? KOEIEN LOEIEN (cows moo or low). The KOE is number eight in the list of animals in the frequency dictionary of Dutch which was published this year. Number one, by the way, is the HOND (dog). KIP (chicken) is number 7 and SCHAAP (sheep) nummer 9.

Last week I visited the reopened Mauritshuis (majestic, beautiful, inspiring) and was struck by the most beautiful cow I’ve ever seen. No, I don’t mean Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. I mean the cow which is in ‘De stier’ (the bull) by Paulus Potter (1625-1654). And I don’t mean the young bull, no I mean the recumbent cow between the bull and the old man.

The painting is huge in size. Experts date it around 1647 when the painter was only 21. It must have been painted a few years before he moved to the Dunne Bierkade 17 in The Hague. The mansion is still there. In the Golden Age this canal was the boundary of the city. Between The Hague and Rijswijk there were fields and meadows.

James Joyce (1882-1941) may have written the most moving opening lines of a novel in which a cow occurs, the Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg (1905-1962) wrote the best poem about the KOE. In this poem he compares the poet to a KOE which swallows the grass of reality, chews the cud and eventually produces sweet lyrical milk. Achterberg called it ‘The poet is a cow’ but he could also have called it: ‘A Portrait of the Poet as a Cow’. Or ‘A Portrait of the Cow as a Poet’. Not a ‘self’-portrait!

De dichter is een koe

Gras… en voorbij het grazen
lig ik bij mijn vier poten
mijn ogen te verbazen,
omdat ik nu weer evengrote
monden vol eet zonder te lopen,
terwijl ik straks nog liep te eten,
ik ben het zeker weer vergeten
wat voor een dier ik ben – de sloten
kaatsen mijn beeld wanneer ik drink,
dan kijk ik naar mijn kop, en denk:
hoe komt die koe ondersteboven?
Het hek waartegen ik mij schuur
wordt oud en glad en vettig op den duur.
Voor kikkers en voor kinderen ben ik schuw
en zij voor mij: mijn tong is hen te ruw,
alleen de boer melkt mij zo zalig,
dat ik niet eenmaal denk: wat is hij toch inhalig.
‘s Nachts, in de mist, droom ik gans onbewust
dat ik een kalfje ben, dat bij de moeder rust.

Uit: Eiland der ziel (1939)

The Poet as a Cow

Grass… and having grazed,
lying here on folded legs
with eyes amazed
that I don’t need to take a step
yet find my mouth as full
as when I walked the field.
It must have slipped my mind again
what kind of animal I am.
Reflected in ditches when I drink,
I see my head and think:
why is that cow so upside down?
In time the gate I use to rub against
grows old and grey and greasy smooth.
I’m shy of frogs and children and they
of me: they find my tongue too rough.
The farmer’s milking is such bliss,
I overlook his avarice.
Quite unaware, I dream in mist at night
that I’m a calf, resting by its mother’s side.

(Translation: © David Colmer, 2008)