Early this month, some discussion on ADS-L about cow-tailing / cowtailing, set off by Jon Lighter’s quoting from the Wordnik entry on cow-tail, which has plenty of examples of references to cow’s tails and things resembling them, but also this quote from Talking Points Memo:

This Republican is convinced that Barack Obama represents the very best option for this country if for no other reason it is because he refuses to cow-tail to the antics of the DNC.

That’s cow-tail for kowtow, pretty clearly an eggcorn — a reanalysis of the expression that finds two familiar parts in it, though what kowtowing has to do with cow’s tails is entirely unclear.

Four things: some irrelevancies to get out of the way; more eggcornish examples of cowtail; earlier blog discussion of the variant cow-tow; and the developing semantics of kowtow.

Non-eggcorn cowtailing. A search for cowtail pulls up this quote, from Ty Cobb’s My Life in Baseball (1961):

The Elbertons were a pretty catty bunch, and their pitcher was a lanky fireballer with good control. I managed a couple of singles; then I came up in the final inning with the score tied and a Royston runner on base. I was surprised that my knees didn’t knock. I felt comfortable despite the hollering Elberton fans. And no poet, however great, could describe my sensation when I cowtailed a pitch for my third single of the day—the game-breaking hit.

From The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, 3rd ed. (2009), p. 221:

cowtail swing  A long swing of a bat held at the very end of the handle, resembling the looping motion of a cow swishing its tail.

cowtail  To take a cowtail swing.

cowtailer  A batter who takes a cowtail swing.

So this baseball use is metaphorical, and is irrelevant to the analysis of examples involving the showing of deference or respect.

Cowtailing in the Eggcorn Forum. Back on ADS-L, Benjamin Barrett quoted this Eggcorn Forum example:

I am NOT a Falun Gong follower. But there seems to a point that most are missing, in that the Chinese government escorted an Australian civillain doing her job from an aircraft and was interrogated with no representation from the Australian Government present. QANTAS on the other hand has cowtailed to the Chinese Government who seem to be pushing their muscle around yet again and for that matter so has the Australian Government cowtailed to the Chinese yet again. Falun Gong seems to be a non-violent religion but is treated like criminals in China and China exherts its power wherever it feels like to attack these people.

(with a link to earlier discussion). The best the discussants could do to rationalize cowtail was to suggest a subliminal association with the verb cow ’cause (someone) to submit to one’s wishes by intimidation’. But tail is still a mystery semantically.

The demi-eggcorn cow-tow. From Language Log back in 2007, in my posting “Cow-towing to Celsius”:

Now for cow-tow (also spelled solid, as cowtow, and separated, as cow tow).  This one is in Brians, under cowtow/kowtow, and was noted in a discussion on the Eggcorn Forum back in March.  You can google up a pile of hits; it’s all over the place.  The question then is whether this is a simple misspelling, with initial /k/ spelled by the more common C rather than K; or a spelling like pail for pale in beyond the pail (more on this below); or an eggcorn in which cows are somehow involved (a possibility that the posters on the forum found unlikely).  It is, of course, possible that different people have hit on the spelling by different routes.

As background for further discussion, I note that eggcorns come in three types:

Type 1, involving semantic reanalysis of some part of an expression that is not reflected in spelling.  These are HIDDEN EGGCORNS, like the die is cast taken to refer to casting things in molds, rather than throwing dice (in the ecdb here).

Type 2, involving semantic reanalysis of some part of an expression that’s reflected in spelling but not in pronunciation, as in the dye is cast, with the expression taken to refer to coloring things (in the ecdb here).

Type 3, involving semantic reanalysis of some part of an expression that’s reflected in both spelling and pronunciation, as in mindgrain for migraine (in the ecdb here).

In these classic eggcorns, there is a reanalysis of one or more parts of an expression as representing lexical material not in the original and contributing to the (perceived) semantics of the result.  In types 2 and 3, the reanalysis is reflected in the spelling.

But there are other errors in which one or more parts of an expression are re-spelled so as to replace opaque parts by recognizable lexical material, but without any noticeable improvement in the semantics; what gives rise to them is a drive to find familiar elements as much as possible.  I’ll call these DEMI-EGGCORNS.  The errors that I called PAILS in an earlier posting — named for the pail of beyond the pail — are demi-eggcorns: they provide familiar parts that nevertheless don’t contribute meaning to the resulting expression.

Of course it’s possible that once the reanalysis has been made by some people, others will find some way to rationalize the result.  Maybe there are people who think pails are involved when something is beyond the pail.

And maybe there are people who think that cows are involved in cow-tow.  But I’d guess that many people who use this spelling are just pleased to see a familiar element, cow, in the expression, and treat the whole expression as yet another puzzling idiom of English.  That is, I’m suggesting that many occurrences of cow-tow are demi-eggcorns (some probably are simple misspellings) — of a type corresponding to the type 2 eggcorns above, with spelling altered but pronunciation preserved.

What does kowtow mean? Back on ADS-L, Benjamin Barrett noted that in the Eggcorn Forum discussion, commenter TootsNYC seemed to think that kowtowing is bowing and wondered how widespread that understanding was.

Here’s the story for standard English, where NOAD2 gives two senses for the verb kowtow:

historical kneel and touch the ground with the forehead in worship or submission as part of Chinese custom. ORIGIN early 19th cent.: from Chinese kētóu, from kē ‘knock’ + tóu ‘head.’

and then an extended sense (with aspects of both metaphor and metonymy in it):

act in an excessively subservient manner: she didn’t have to kowtow to a boss.

Now, if you know that the verb is associated with a Chinese gesture of deference or respect, you might well conclude that the gesture in question is one familiar to you for this purpose, namely bowing the head. The extended sense would be untouched by this understanding, a fact that’s important because the verb is rarely used to refer to a specific gesture, but is used mostly in its extended sense. So I suspect that a great many people are unaware of the etymology or have it wrong.


7 Responses to “cowtailing”

  1. h.s. gudnason Says:

    Could there be a possible analogy to high-tail? It’s not an expression I use, and it was only when I thought about it now that I thought of its probable original meaning of an animal lifting its tail as it runs away.

    If one makes the leap from kow to cow, and are then going to look for something logical to pin to the cow, a tail makes as much sense as a tow rope or any of the other things one might imagine.

    I’ll also add a note on the fragility of the l sound. This morning someone said the name Cleary to me on the phone, and I had to ask if they had said Cleary or query. (There was no context, so either would have made sense.) If you don’t know a word, but think it has something to do with cows, and then need to to think of something else connected to cows that sounds like that second syllable, tail is there to hand, especially if you already have high-tail to hand as a common but somewhat opaque expression.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The phonology has been pretty well studied: the vocalization of /l/ or its outright deletion are well-known, and facilitate many eggcorns (and everyday mishearings and misunderstandings).

  2. Valentime’s Day « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] and once again, cow-tow for kow-tow (link) […]

  3. Five for Friday | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Ruthie’s reshaping isn’t a classic eggcorn, but close. See this posting: […]

  4. Mark Robert Bokody Says:

    I disagree with the above analysis.

    Perhaps it is kow tow that sounds a lot like cow tail and not the other way around.

    Kow tow and cow tail do not have the same meaning. Kow tow is an Asian derivative which means simply to bow to pay respect. On the other hand cow tailing means sucking it up to please someone else and has little to do about respect.

    I see cow tail as a perfectly good idiom to describe following someone around and heeding to their every wish . . . just as the tail of a cow follows the cow every where the cow goes.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Once eggcorning has happened, the new version comes with a rationalization, and the new version can spread as a new lexical item to people who know nothing of its history. Which seems to be what happened here.

  5. Kevin Gauthier Says:

    So growing up on a farm,I became familiar with this terminology, cow tailing, because when we needed to move the herd through tight spaces or into a trailer, we would twist their tails. It caused them to submit, even if unwillingly. I was surprised to find it was not a commonly known term with a clearly defined meaning and history.

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