Famous Sayings: #63 — ‘[As] Strong As an Ox’

May 26, 2017

He’s as strong as an ox.

strong as an ox, ox, famous sayings

I decided to sit on this famous saying for a few weeks because it was hard to track down the origin, but I might have found something in my research that I would like to share.

Of course, many of us know the term “strong as an ox” usually refers to a male. Oxen are strong animals, so it is understood that a man who is “as strong as an ox” has massive strength — or in rare cases, the person speaking about him is being facetious.

Also, this phrase made me brush up on my grammar. As I suspected, the term “[As] strong as an ox” is a simile because it uses the terms “as” or “like” to make a comparison between two dissimilar things (“Simile”). If this was a metaphor, which also makes a comparison between two things, the man would be called an ox and that might be followed by drawn out imagery to reinforce that comparison.

But when did this idiom originate? You might have an idea, but it might be older than you think.


Did the Phrase ‘[As] Strong As an Ox’ Come from the Pioneer Days of the American West?

Since the trail was pretty dry at first, I looked at a thread on Quora to get a few cludes.

The question as to why people used the term “strong as an ox,” which may have been posed on April 8, 2016, had 4 answers. The first one, by Douglas White, was definitely the best.

strong as an ox, pioneer days, American West
By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
There was no clear origin given, but Douglas White at least hinted the phrase may have come into being because of how pioneer settlers of the American West used oxen. In the pioneer days, oxen were used to pull the wagons, plow fields, and uproot tree stumps. In particular, oxen were stronger than horses, could last longer, and subsisted on grasses, as opposed to “oats or other grains.”

A page on the National Oregon/California Trail Center supports this. On their website, I found a short post that discussed the advantages of using oxen, compared to mules (and horses).

Whereas mules were faster, they had a tendency to bolt and were thus difficult to control. Oxen were slower, but they were stronger, more reliable, and would “eat poor grass.” In addition, they were more assets when pulling wagon through tougher terrain.

According to estimates, large wagons each needed at least 6 oxen to pull them. And at least half of all pioneer wagons employed oxen.


Did the Phrase Exist Long Before the Pioneer Days?

According the WikiAnswers® Community, the phrase “Strong as an ox” comes from old French, old Greek, and Latin. However, there was not extra information and I was unsatisfied with that answer.

As I was trying to verify if the phrase was old French, Latin, or Greek, I find a link to a Google Books preview. The book in question was entitled, Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors.

Here is the pertinent passage from page 373:

STRONG AS AN OX  to be strong as an ox. To be extremely strong and durable. (Usu. said of a male.) Source: OX. WNNCD: O.E. An ox is a castrated bull that is employed as a draft animal. It can weigh well over a ton. The ox was the largest beast of burden in Europe before the horse appeared. Horses are faster, but oxen have greater endurance. AID; ID. See also Big as an Ox; Strong as a Bull; Strong as a Bull Moose; Strong as a Horse.

There were three other phrases listed in this entry, with different definitions. The phrase “Strong as a bull moose” was said to have originated around 1203, according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. The other three phrases, including “Strong as an ox,” were said to have come from Olde English.

Olde English was spoken between the 5th and 11th centuries.


Approaching the Holiday

So there you have it: The phrase “Strong as an ox” likely came between the 5th and 11th centuries. It makes sense considering how oxen have been used during human history.

Before I sign off, I want to say this:

In the United States, we are approaching Memorial Day. It is observed on the final Monday in May. But not matter where you are, have a safe and happy weekend, everyone!


Note

An ox is “a mature castrated male belonging to the domestic cattle family, or genus Bos.” Most oxen are trained to work and often used for meat at the end of life. In the United States, an ox is considered mature once it’s four years old (Conroy).


Works Cited

Ager, Simon. “Old English / Anglo-Saxon (Ænglisc).” Omniglot. Web. Retrieved 26 May 2017. <http://www.omniglot.com/writing/oldenglish.htm>.

Conroy, Drew. “What Is an Ox?” Rural Heritage. 13 Oct 2005. Last Updated 23 Oct 2011. Web. Retrieved 26 May 2017. <https://www.ruralheritage.com/ox_paddock/ox_whatis.htm>.

“Mules, Horse, or Oxen.” National Oregon/California Trail Center. Web. Retrieved 26 May 2017. <https://www.oregontrailcenter.org/HistoricalTrails/MulesOrOxen.htm>.

Palmatier, Robert Allen. Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors. Greenwood Press. Westport, CT; 1995. Print. Pages xvi, 372-373. Retrieved 26 May 2017.

“Simile vs. Metaphor.” UDL Book Builder. Web. Retrieved 26 May 2017. <http://bookbuilder.cast.org/view_print.php?book=22151>.

Various. “Why do people say ‘strong as an ox’?” Quora. Last Answered 31 Jan 2017. Web. Retrieved 26 May 2017. <https://www.quora.com/Why-do-people-say-strong-as-an-ox>.

WikiAnswers® Community. “What is origin of the phrase Strong as an ox?” Answers.com. Web. Retrieved 26 May 2017. <http://www.answers.com/Q/What_is_origin_of_the_phrase_Strong_as_an_ox>.

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