The heifer executive

Yesterday’s wry Rhymes With Orange strip, wordless and spare-looking, but packed with tons of meaning on two fronts, the dairy and the managerial; meanwhile, it presents a challenging exercise in cartoon understanding.

(#1) If you see that there’s something sweetly funny about a dairy cow managing a business, well, that will do — but the pleasure of the cartoon is in the details

The dairy theme. Everyone should recognize that that’s a cow sitting at a desk in some kind of office, on a farm. (We all understand that animals in Cartoon World can do pretty much everything human beings can do, so a cow working at a desk isn’t worthy of note.) As for the farm, note the red barn and silo, plus some fencing, visible in the window. As for the cow, well, you know what cattle look like, and it’s wearing a cowbell.

From NOAD:

noun cowbell: [a] a bell hung around a cow’s neck in order to help locate the animal by the noise it makes. [b] a bell similar to a cowbell used as a percussion instrument, typically without a clapper and struck with a stick. [I’ve left sense b in for future use below]

But in fact it’s specifically a Holstein, a breed noted for its production of milk. From Wikipedia:

(#2) Holstein heifer, from the AGDAILY site; cf. the cartoon cow in #1

Holstein Friesians (often shortened to Holsteins in North America, while the term Friesians is often used in the UK and Ireland) are a breed of dairy cattle that originated in the Dutch provinces of North Holland and Friesland, and Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germany. They are known as the world’s highest-producing dairy animals.

Dutch and German breeders developed the breed with the goal of producing animals that could most efficiently use grass, the area’s most abundant resource, as their food. Over the centuries, the result was a high-producing, black-and-white dairy cow.

You can’t see the Holstein’s udder in #1, but the clue is there: the laptop the cow is using is not an Apple, but an Udder (with four teats). From Wikipedia:

An udder is an organ formed of two or four mammary glands on the females of dairy animals and ruminants such as cattle, goats, and sheep. An udder is equivalent to the breast in primates and elephantine pachyderms. The udder is a single mass hanging beneath the animal, consisting of pairs of mammary glands with protruding teats. In cattle, there are normally two pairs

(as in the icon on the laptop’s cover).

But wait, there’s more. The nameplate on the desk identifies the bovine typist by the initialistic name L. C.: /ˌɛlˈsi/ — a pun on Elsie /ˈɛlsi/, the name of a very famous heifer. My 12/7/13 posting “Cartoon retirement” (about a Zippy strip) has a section on this heifer: Elsie the Cow, a cartoon cow that’s been used as the logo for the Borden Dairy Company since 1936:

(#3) Elsie is cute (big eyes and ears in the context of the whole face, shortened snout, laughing), while L.C. in #1 — who’s not just a dairy cow but also a member of the managerial class — is presented as serious (smaller eyes, behind glasses, smaller ears, entirely realistic long snout, unsmiling); Elsie is also a Jersey (how now, brown cow?), not a Holstein

From Wikipedia:

The Jersey is a British breed of small dairy cattle from Jersey, in the British Channel Islands. … It is highly productive – cows may give over 10 times their own weight in milk per lactation; the milk is high in butterfat and has a characteristic yellowish tinge.

The Jersey adapts well to various climates and environments, and unlike many breeds originating in temperate climates, these cows can tolerate heat very well.

The two foci of the cartoon. The viewer’s attention will be captured first by L. C.’s face — we almost always go for faces first, even if they’re anthropomorphic bovine faces (as here), and this is a big face — and then by the object right out in front, which is also the other large object in the foreground of the cartoon: an eccentric Newton’s cradle.

L. C.’s face is the standard bearer for the dairy theme. Newton’s cradle is the standard bearer for the managerial theme: it’s an executive’s desk toy. (Sweetly, it’s a cowbell Newton’s cradle.) Two foci for two themes united in L. C.: the heifer and the executive.

The managerial theme. On the desk: a laptop computer that L.C. is using, a coffee mug filled with coffee, an executive toy, and a nameplate. This is a desk in an office — L. C.’s office, we assume — and it’s not the desk of a mere office worker (a typist, say), but the desk of a manager, an executive, to judge from the evidence of the coffee mug, the desk toy, the nameplate, and the two things printed on the nameplate (the name L. C. itself and the identifier L. L. C.). All of this is a matter of extraordinary (sub)cultural specificity, having to do with very particular cultural practices in specific social contexts.

Background from NOAD::

noun executive: 1 a person with senior managerial responsibility in a business organization: account executives | the chief executive. …

In Cartoon World, L. C. is both a dairy cow and also a such a person, at the head of her own company.

The coffee. As a rule, executives take their coffee in mugs (rather than in cups, as at a meal), at their desks, as a marker of some level of executive status; ordinary office workers get coffee breaks.

The desk toy. Executive toys are variously entertaining objects, claimed to provide stress relief to executives, visual beauty to the aesthetically inclined, or fascination for the science nerds. In principle, the toy in #1 does all three. Maybe plus musical pleasure from those little cowbells; recall NOAD‘s sense b of cowbell above (and of course the “More Cowbell” sketch from SNL).

A cartoon version of the toy, from a section on a Seth Fleishman New Yorker cartoon in my 8/9/17 posting “Further adventures in cartoon understanding”:

(#4) The cocktail Newton: cocktail olives (with the cocktail pick for eating them) with Newton’s cradle device

On the device, from Wikipedia:

a device that demonstrates conservation of momentum and energy using a series of swinging spheres. When one sphere at the end is lifted and released, it strikes the stationary spheres; a force is transmitted through the stationary spheres and pushes the last sphere upward. The device is also known as Newton’s balls or Executive Ball Clicker [because it is commonly used as an executive toy].

The basic object:

(#5) The PowerTRC Newton’s cradle on Amazon, offered as a science gadget or a desk toy; the device most commonly has 5 balls (as here), though there are only 4 elements (olives) in Fleishman’s cartoon and 6 elements (little cowbells) in the cartoon in #1, and 7-ball versions are available on-line

Now, the significance of any sort of Newton’s cradle on L. C.’s desk: managerial types have license to litter their desks with objects that catch their fancy, while ordinary office workers are expected to limit themselves to work-related stuff, plus some small personal mementos. Something as off-the-wall as a cowbell Newton’s cradle would signify someone of considerable status and privilege.

[Digression on executive toys. More extraordinary (sub)cultural specificity, with a fairly shallow history. In this case, I came upon an entertaining and lightly informative New York Times piece on the subject: “Designing Distraction: Executive Toys” by Julie Lasky in the 2/5/15 Home & Garden section (on-line on 2/4). Some highlights (at length, because I enjoyed the piece; but I’ve left out the historical part):

The Museum of Modern Art is a temple of useful design. It has sponsored chair-making competitions, turned a vacant lot into a showcase of prefabricated housing and exhibited paper clips as if they were Rothkos. Its retail arm, the MoMA Store, is filled with beautiful but sensible objects.

So I was surprised to find the Helicone among the store’s spring introductions.

The Helicone is made of paddle-shaped wood pieces arrayed around a metal rod. Depending on which way you spin it, the pieces rearrange themselves into two shapes: a helix and something like a pine cone.

This is to say that the Helicone is delightful to look at and manipulate, but has no obvious purpose.

Ditto for the Crookes Radiometer, which MoMA also just began selling. An updated version of a late-19th-century invention, it is a glass globe encasing thin squares of mysteriously whirling metal. (The effect depends on the way the squares respond to light). Looks: 10; utility: questionable.

“Do my eyes deceive me,” I asked Emmanuel Plat, the museum’s director of merchandising, “or are these executive toys?”

Mr. Plat is French, but he had no trouble understanding my question. In French, the phrase is “gadget de bureau.” In German, it is “managerspielzeug.”

“They have something poetic about them,” he said of both.

In any language, “executive toy” refers to an object that sits on a desk in a workplace or home office and is fiddled with. One thinks of Magic 8 Balls delivering gnomic messages. Or Zen gardens with little rakes. Or Newton’s Cradle, a row of dangling metal spheres that knock against one another, sending the end members flying in demonstration of Newton’s law of conservation of momentum.

Far from lacking functionality, such objects are said to offer diversion, provoke dialogue and relieve stress.

But wait. Don’t executives have email for distraction now? Isn’t Twitter enough of a conversation starter? Doesn’t a treadmill workstation alleviate tension?

And how much longer will the roomy executive desk be supporting tchotchkes before it gives way to the communal worktable or cubicle farm? Even now, bosses are laboring alongside their subordinates in the people’s republics of architecture studios and tech start-ups. At some point we may all be working on our sofas. (As I type this, I’m lying in bed.)

Why are executive toys still around?

Adrienne Appell, a representative of the Toy Industry Association, which is holding its annual Toy Fair in New York starting Feb. 14, sees nothing incongruous about desktop gewgaws in the digital age.

“With today’s extended work hours, multiple screens and multiple devices, it’s even more important for people to step back and take that moment to de-stress,” she said.

Scott G. Eberle, vice president for play studies at the Strong museum in Rochester, said another benefit of desktop toys is the way they lull you into a meditative state.

Mr. Eberle, who edits the Strong’s American Journal of Play and has written extensively on subjects like daydreaming, sees creative value in objects like Newton’s Cradle, which enact physical laws in mysterious, implacable ways. The detachment that comes from watching them is fertile soil for thought.

“Ideally, you need to move yourself into a state where your mind is offline,” he said, adding that lava lamps, plasma globes and fish tanks provide similar services.

In the case of the Magic 8 Ball, where 20 seer-like phrases (“Without a doubt,” “Outlook not so good,” et cetera) present themselves in a little window, Mr. Eberle sees a corollary to the mind. The answers “float to the surface out of the deep dark recesses,” he said.

… The design curator Donald Albrecht, who organized an exhibition in 2000 called “On the Job: Design and the American Office” at the National Building Museum in Washington, pointed out that Newton’s Cradle was finding an audience around the same time (1971) that the designer Alexander Girard was creating Environmental Enrichment textiles to enliven Herman Miller’s latest office cubicle system.

For Mr. Albrecht, executive toys are “aspirational,” as he put it — less tools for provoking creativity than foghorns of identity and status in a sea of corporate homogeneity.

Or as I’ve come to think of it, they convey executive status through conspicuous recreation (similar to conspicuous consumption).]

The nameplate / name plate. First of all, having a desk nameplate at all. From Wikipedia:

Office nameplates generally are made out of plastic, wood, metals (stainless steel, brass, aluminium, zinc, copper) and usually contain one or two lines of text. The standard format for an office nameplate is to display a person’s name on the first line and a person’s job title on the second line. It is common for organizations to request nameplates that exclude the job title. The primary reasons for excluding job titles are to extend the longevity of a nameplate and to promote a culture of meritocracy, where the strength of one’s thoughts are not connected to one’s job title.

An example, with just the person’s name (the nameplate with the title was on the office door):

(#6) The nameplate from my father’s desk at work (as a public health officer on the central California coast) 40+ years ago, made for him by a fellow in Santa Monica in Fraktur-style lettering (a touch of Swissness), in an L-shaped metal holder — on my own work table now

In actual practice, a nameplate is a status symbol (a fact that some employers try to undercut). But, apparently, L. C. has as much status as she could want: the nameplate identifies her position as a company, a limited liability company: she is the company. (And then we get some incidental initialistic language play in L. C., L. L. C.)

Wikipedia on the company thing:

A limited liability company (LLC) is the US-specific form of a private limited company. It is a business structure that can combine the pass-through taxation of a partnership or sole proprietorship with the limited liability of a corporation.

The name L. C. The head heifer uses this name — apparently a  nickname, a two-letter initialism standing for FN + MN (FNI + MNI: J. T. for James Tiberius Yorke, a fictional character in the tv series Degrassi: The Next Generation) or FN + LN (FNI + LNI: J. T. for singer James Warren Taylor).

The naming patterns have social correlates: FNI + MNI is often used as an affectionate nickname (J. T. in Degrassi), FNI + LNI as a respectful nickname (subordinate to boss as they come to a door: “After you, J. B.”), while FNI + MNI + LNI is often reserved for famous people (FDR, JFK, RBG).

Maybe L. C.’s name is Lily Cow. It could be; Lily is a good name for a heifer. So L. C. could be a respectful nickname, as well as a pun.



14 Responses to “The heifer executive”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I was a little surprised when I first saw this strip that the cartoonist made so little attempt to make L.C. look anything like Elsie; what I immediately noticed was the lack of Elsie’s characteristic forehead curl (a cowlick?), and I also note that L.C. is polled, whereas Elsie sports prominent horns.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, L. C. is very much a (largely realistic representation of a) Holstein heifer, sharing little with Elsie beyond their both being dairy cows.

  2. Mitch4 Says:

    It happens this same cartoon is today’s “Comic I Don’t Understand” at

  3. Mitch4 Says:

    I recall a puzzle/exercise posed by one of the faculty at UChicago, maybe Jerry Sadock or Howard Aronson.

    When we call someone by a pair of initials, if both letters have monosyllabic names, the speaker may give the first or second one some stress. For example “T J” would generally have a trochaic intonation, while “J T” would generally be given iambic intonation.

    The puzzle claims the iambic is more common [among possible letter pairs, not necessarily among actual names] — and that the trochaic ones can be picked out by just two patterns. What are these trochaic patterns?

    • Mitch4 Says:

      S P O I L E R — Puzzle answer below line


      The offered solution was that a pair of initials used as a name will typically be spoken with trochaic stress just in case either of two conditions obtains:

      1. The second initial is J.
      2. The two initials are the same.

      Examples offered for condition 1 include AJ, BJ, CJ.
      Examples offered for condition 2 include CC, DD.
      (And JJ would fit both.)

      I have some trouble over the examples for 2, as I think of CeeCee and DeeDee as [nick]names quite apart from initials.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        There is, of course, some variation. And a nickname exception. And an exception for stress retraction to achieve alternating stress (I am iambic AZ, but trochaic AZ Junior).

      • Robert Coren Says:

        I have a friend named JT, and my perception is that the two syllables get more or less equal stress, in my pronunciation and his.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Robert Coren on JT: in English, what you’re inclined to perceive as equal stress in two-part expressions is almost always phonetically secondary-primary, i.e. iambic.

  4. Downpuppy Says:

    You can’t get milk from a heifer. Milk production & udder maturity only starts with the first pregnancy, when heifers become cows.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Right you are. I really wanted the assonance of heifer executive, but I also wanted to avoid cow ‘a fully grown female bovine’ wherever possible, because cow is so often loosely used to refer to any domestic bovine, regardless of sex or age. So I was willing to stretch the usage of heifer.

  5. Victor Steinbok Says:

    I was a bit surprised you didn’t elaborate on the red barn. Red barn is a ubiquitous image of rural Americana. There’s a whole category of Red Barn Art that includes photos, prints, posters and paintings with a variety of shapes and sizes of red barns along with other rural accouterments, such as silos, tractors or pitchforks. For some reason, the site is not allowing me access to the clipboard so I cannot offer links, but searching for Red Barn Art pops a number of links, including Amazon and several print and poster dealers.

    But there’s more. This may be a cheeky tribute to Larson’s Far Side, as he made use of Holsteins and red barns with some regularity (the family of Holsteins at the Grand Canyon is probably the most common one). I could find specific strips with red barns but he did have a few.

    There’s also the matter of Roy Lichtenstein, who had made the Red Barn his own. There are many variations of the Red Barn in Lichtenstein’s pop art prints. So there’s a pretty obvious pop art refence in this particular strip.

    Which brings me to an important question. Is the red barn with silo an image in the window or a piece of Rural Nostalgia pop art that one might find in executive offices. I’m not at all convinced that the frame is a window, but rather an executive “I came from humble roots” trope. YMMV

    One more note: James Tiberius Yorke seems to be an obvious riff on/tribute to James Tiberius Kirk. It wouldn’t surprise me to find other Star Trek Easter eggs or similar tribute names in the series.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Thank you for the possible Red Barn associations in the strip — almost surely not consciously in Dan and Wayno’s minds when they put it together, but certainly something one might see in it. However, I was deeply dismayed to see you adding this commentary by wielding the Accusatory Failure Trope against me (expressing surprise about things I failed to mention). First, I NEVER, EVER, claim that in analyzing a cartoon I am committing myself to a full explication of everything that might be found in it. I merely claim to be finding some things of significance (and then choosing some of these for my discussion).

      I have had readers explain to me that it is my responsibility to provide a full and complete account, and if I’m not willing to do that, I shouldn’t be posting at all. (These critics are always male; completism is a well-known gender-related behavior.) They can go to hell.

      I have had readers explain the deficiencies of my postings to me (some version of the critical refrain that has dogged me all my life: you’re not trying hard enough, and anyway, you’re doing it wrong), so that I will mend my ways and do it better in the future. They are telling me about my deficiencies for my own good. (Again, I believe that such critics have always been male: this kind of explicit molding of other men’s behavior to suit some norm, via stringent, often public and often aggressively framed, criticism, is a classic male behavior.) I do not take well to guys trying to chivvy me into being the sort of person they think I should be.

      Look, I’m delighted to see discussion of things I didn’t mention –didn’t mention because I chose to focus on just a few points, didn’t mention because I didn’t notice them, didn’t mention because the observations were on the idiosyncratic side, arising from someone else’s personal experiences with the images or text in the cartoon. So, if you have things to add, ADD THEM. Don’t launch your observations by telling me that I have failed to do what (you think) I should have done.

      Yes, I am trying to modify other men’s behavior through criticism, or at least complaint. I appreciate the irony, but what are the alternatives? I mean, how do I get these guys off my fucking back? (I know, I know, I will be told to take it like a man, suck it up, stop whining like a little girl. You don’t have to say it; I’ve heard it thousands of times.)

      And I understand that you you are now going to say, defensively, that you were just trying to be helpful.

  6. Victor Steinbok Says:

    My apologies. It was never intended to be accusatory. It’s more a tribute to your diligence and thoroughness that I always expect you to cover the full picture. So the surprise was that the *mention* of the barn wasn’t followed by an elaboration, as was the case with other elements. It wasn’t so much helpfulness as the desire to compare notes and I honestly thought you might’ve left out a paragraph by accident. I’ve done that even in important submissions – I mull things over in my head to the point that it feels like I’ve already put them in only to discover at final check (or later) that I haven’t. In any case, it was in no way an expression of disappointment or unmet expectations or a desire to upstage the original post. Nor do I think I was trying to be helpful. More curious than helpful, regarding the semiotics of the picture. I’ll try to phrase it more carefully in the future to avoid such tropes.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      If you always expect me — or anybody — to cover the full picture, then you will forever be disappointed. Supplying the cultural context for a single cartoon, including interpretations and associations that the artist didn’t intend but might strike a viewer as salient to them, would easily fill a book (and still be incomplete). In the current case, almost everything about modern American office culture would be relevant, as would almost everything about dairy farming as a practice and a business. And the possible significances of the number 6 (in the Newton’s cradle in the cartoon) and the number 5 (in the conventional Newton’s cradle). Or why red is the canonical color for American barns. (I could go on like this for pages, just posing questions, not even trying to answer them.)

      Any writer chooses some things to say. Because they believe those are especially relevant, or because those things strike the writer’s fancy in some (quite possibly idiosyncratic) way. (My work is famously idiosyncratic — to many people, incomprehensibly so.)

      In the case at hand, I judged the red barn, silo, fencing, and pasture in the window to be there to establish a dairy-farm context for the cartoon (which is otherwise in an office). Period. Sometimes a red barn really is just a red barn, no matter how rich a world it might evoke for you personally. So I chose not to digress on red barns, or the maintenance of pasturage, or the particular kind of fencing in the cartoon, or the significance of there being just one little cloud in an otherwise cloudless sky, or silos as metaphor, or, or, or … Meanwhile, I feel extraordinarily silly and stupid defending myself against a charge that I ought to have written an essay on The Red Barn in American Art, along with what I did say.

      I’ll say it again: I chose what to put in a (relatively short) posting (though it took many hours to compose and polish), and I’m happy with the product. I understand that there’s a lot more I could have said, a lot that I didn’t notice, a lot that other people will latch onto because of their personal histories and interests. Fine: tell us about them. Just get off my fucking back.

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