Saturday, June 17, 2017

Udderly Slow

Jim from Northport wrote: “The other night on Wheel of Fortune, the contest phrase was, till the cows come home. I say that the use of till in that clause is incorrect, while my wife argues that it is correct. My logic is that you don't till cows. The word is supposed to be a contraction of the word until. Therefore the contest phrase should have been ‘til the cows come home. Please point us in the correct direction.”

As far as meaning goes, if you observe cows milling about, they are notoriously leisurely, and they wander almost aimlessly. So the image tells you that something is going to take so long that frustration is almost guaranteed.

Jim, I fear that your wife is correct. The heart of the matter here is that till is a word all by itself, not a shortened version of until. In addition,‘til is a fairly recent invention. It is not universally accepted as a contraction of until, and its use in formal writing is discouraged.

Adding to the difficulty is that the word till has multiple meanings. Additionally, it can function not only as a verb and a noun, but also as a preposition, a conjunction, and an adverb. In the case of till the cows come home, till functions as a subordinating conjunction; its role is to complete or enhance the meaning of the accompanying independent clause: “Junior, you can beg for the car keys till the cows come home, but it ain’t gonna happen.”

As a conjunction, till means “up to the time of,” and the first use cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1154. As a matching conjunction, until means “up to the time of,” and it doesn’t appear until 1330. So till and until are pretty much interchangeable in that sense.

What drew Jim off target was one of the verb meanings of till – to work the soil for planting. The figurative use of the verb means to cultivate some quality of mind or spirit. As a noun, till can refer to a drawer or money-box in a business, or to a stratum of hard clay or shale. But those meanings turn out to be irrelevant in this case.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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