The phrase “how now brown cow” is a frequently recited but misunderstood idiom. You may have heard it in movies or from friends, but what does it really mean?
In this article, you’ll learn more about this fascinating phrase, including its meaning, origins, and usage. We’ll also provide some well-known examples of the phrase from pop culture.
Most people have heard and even recited the phrase, “how now brown cow,” but few know the actual meaning of it. In reality, the phrase “how now brown cow” has no literal meaning. The phrase was coined as a teaching aid to assist with elocution or the study of formal speech.
You pronounce each O in the phrase in the same way, and the rhyming sounds are easy for school children to memorize. That’s why the term has been and is still used to teach the pronunciation of rounded O sounds.
The repetition and silliness of the phrase make it an effective teaching tool.
Even though the phrase “how now brown cow” has no literal meaning, its usage has spread wildly and is common in pop culture.
In the film Anchorman, Ron Burgundy, played by Will Ferrell, prepares to anchor a news segment. He repeats the phrase, “how now brown cow” twice, then checks his tongue in a mirror before reciting it once more.
In the original trailer for the 1998 film The Avengers, Dr. Emma Peel, played by Uma Thurman, is in a red phone booth. She answers the ringing phone with the phrase, “How now, brown cow?”
However, more correct usage of the phrase is a teaching tool to improve the dictation and pronunciation of vowel sounds. For example, during an elocution lesson, an instructor would say to a student, “how now, brown cow.” The student would then repeat the phrase back to the instructor.
Rumor has it that the phrase “how now brown cow” was once a way to order a beer in Scotland, where beer barrels were colloquially referred to as brown cows. No one has managed to prove this claim, though.
The phrase may have gained traction when Coach Belle Kennedy instructed actor Laird Cregar to say it from a playhouse stage repeatedly to improve the projection of his voice. However, despite its nonsense nature, the phrase is common in pop culture, appearing in The Avengers, Anchorman, and more.
Similar Phrases and Synonyms
The phrase “how now brown cow” has no literal meaning, so there are no comparable phrases to convey the same information. However, other commonly used elocution phrases include tongue twisters, such as:
- Can you can a can as a canner can can a can?
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
- How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
As the phrase “how now brown cow” has no literal meaning, it can have no opposite meaning. There are no phrases or idioms that express an opposite to “how now brown cow.”
Despite being a nonsense phrase, “how now brown cow” is used frequently in pop culture as a question or greeting. While not technically wrong, using the words in this way doesn’t impart any actual meaning.
The correct usage of the phrase is as a dictation or elocution teaching aid with emphasis on the vowel sounds.