It seems quaint, these days, to express astonishment with a wholesome phrase like "holy cow!" It's so common that we've probably all said it at some point, maybe as kids. And if you're a sports fan of a certain age, you may even associate it with baseball announcers Phil Rizzuto or Harry Caray.
Caray delivered a particularly memorable "hooooo-leeeee coooow!" in his broadcasts — so much so that comic Will Farrell often parodied Caray on "Saturday Night Live." Some people even thought that Rizzuto or Caray might have originated the phrase. They were both in the booth in the early days of "holy cow" — but not quite early enough.
Rizzuto began announcing after his playing days were over. His first season as an announcer for the New York Yankees was in 1957. Caray's announcing career began in the minor leagues in 1943, and he moved up to the majors in 1945.
Big-league Swear Words
"Holy cow" is what's known as a "minced oath." It's when you substitute a kind of maybe similar-ish-sounding word for a taboo word. That's why we have "frickin" and "dang it" and "shizz." In this case, "cow" is probably a stand-in for "Christ" so the speaker wouldn't take the Lord's name in vain.
Minced oaths have been around in the English language for hundreds of years. The variations on the "holy" theme have been in use since the middle of the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its definition of "holy" includes its use as an expletive, such as "holy cow!" or "holy mackerel!" The first instance listed for this variety of minced oath in print comes in 1855, with "holy Moses!"
What about "holy cow" specifically? It does indeed have ties to baseball, back when Caray and Rizzuto weren't even born. A pitcher for the Sacramento Wolves of 1913 was known as "Holy Cow" Peters, according to a 1913 report in the Sacramento Union.
But not even Otto "Holy Cow" Peters could claim to have invented the phrase, since that same year the Lincoln Star in Nebraska noted that player-manager Charlie Mullen said "holy cow." So as early as 1913, people were saying "holy cow," at least in Sacramento, California and Lincoln, Nebraska.
Are Cows Really Holy?
The thing is, cows are famously held as holy in Hinduism. They are not gods, and they are not worshipped, but cows are considered sacred. These gentle beasts give more to humans than they take in the form of milk and its products, like butter and cheese, and manure, which we can use as fertilizer.
There were a few English-language books on India and Hinduism around in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which coincides with the phrase popping up across America. It's unlikely that baseball players were directly referencing Hindu religious beliefs in creating their new minced oath, but it is likely that holy cows were something Westerners knew about at the time. And if you're a baseball player who just struck out again, and you're forbidden from swearing by the league, "holy cow" starts to look like a pretty good substitute for what you'd really like to say.