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Happy Year of the Bovini!

[Water Buffalo]So a friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago: What exactly is the Chinese word used for "ox" in "Year of the Ox"? Apparently, oxen are castrated. So are steer. Cows are of course female. Bulls are male. I said that the Chinese word, 牛, (pronounced kinda like "neo" with the emphasis on the O) emcompasses all of them. In English, the closest we come to that is "cattle", but that's always plural! Is there a singular form of "cattle", meaning a single member of the Bos taurus species?

It seems that "ox" used to be that word, but these days it specifically means cattle used as draft animals, which are typically castrated males. In Australia and New Zealand, they sometimes use the term "cattle beast". And in the US, we often use the word "cow" in a gender-neutral way, possibly because most cattle here are cows, but that's only colloquial; saying, "That cow is a bull," still feels totally wrong. There really just isn't really a singular form of "cattle".

While we can't even come up with a word for the species, it occurred to me that the Chinese 牛 can encompass multiple genera! Bison, water buffalo, yaks, and musk oxen are all considered 牛. (Water buffalo (to your left) in particular are what come to mind when I think of the word in Chinese, and they are Bubalus bubalis, a totally different genus. They are specifically called 水牛, where the first character means "water".) In Wikipedia, the entry for 牛 maps to tribe Bovini (within family Bovniae, subfamily Bovidae).

(That was the first I've heard of tribes, actually. They didn't teach us subclassifications in school. I'm guessing my classes just simplified things, and tribes aren't some new thing? And interesting note is that our only surviving tribemates are chimpanzees. :D)

So the closest word in English to the Chinese 牛 might be "bovine", which can be used as a noun. Oddly, different dictionaries don't agree on what it includes. Random House and Merriam-Webster map it to subfamily Bovinae, as does Wikipedia, but American Heritage and Webster's Unabridged map it to genus Bos. I don't know about the latter, but I feel that the former isn't quite right, because, in addition to tribe Bovini, subfamily Bovinae also includes the tribes Boselaphini and Strepsicerotini, which are antelope-like! Antelopes don't colloquially feel like bovines to me!

Unfortunately, I haven't found any Chinese dictionaries that attempt to map 牛 to scientific classification, but I think tribe Bovini is the most reasonable. Perhaps appropriately, the Oxford English Dictionary maps "bovine" to "the ox tribe". Imprecise, but I like it better than the subfamily or the genus.

Oh, and Happy Year of the Bovini, everyone! :D

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