Pronounced: HOH-lee Kahw Phonetically: /ho-li kaʊ/
Meaning: An exclamation of surprise, astonishment, delight, or dismay.
Usage: Mostly heard in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia. Can be used in place of saying “How wonderful!”, “I don’t believe it!”, “Wow!”, “Oh my Gosh!”, or “What a surprise!” Has been used as a euphemism for “Holy Christ!”
“You won the lottery? Holy cow!”
“Holy cow! Look who it is!”
“Michael Jackson died! Holy cow!”
Earliest traced American use in 1905 in a newspaper in the state of Minnesota.
Commonly used by American baseball players as early as 1913. They used “Holy cow!” in place of obscene words in order to avoid penalties during the game. Famous Chicago Cubs sports broadcaster, Harry Caray, used the term often to prevent himself from using vulgar language on-air. Popular New York Yankee shortstop and later announcer, Phil Rizzuto, was also famous for using the term.
In India, cows are believed to be holy by the Hindu religion. Two nineteenth century English authors incorporated the phrase in their Hindu-influenced writing (see below), suggesting that a similar phrase may have been used in India as early as the 1820’s. Although this literature does not prove that the exclamation was ever used by Hindus in India, they do reflect the origins from English people’s lives in India. Knowing this, English speakers in India may have also adapted the phrase instead of using more offensive words such as “Holy Christ!”.
English Literature Examples:
In Richard Garnett’s short story Ananda the Miracle Worker (published in Twilight of the Gods and Other Tales (T. Fisher Unwin, 1888)), a Hindu nobleman who was tricked into believing that a Buddhist priest had performed a miracle says, “by the holy cow! . . . this is something like a religion!”
William Hockley’s Pandurang Hàrì, or, Memoirs of a Hindoo (Geo. B. Whittaker, 1826) contains several references to swearing by the holy cow. In the first use of the phrase, a character says, “I swear by the holy cow never to give up my revenge.” A footnote describes the phrase as a “solemn Hindoo adjuration.” Other uses of the phrase throughout the book similarly invoke the holy cow to make solemn promises or to request divine help or guidance.