Word of the Day / Para Para

When life gets overwhelming, it can help to take things one cow at a time.

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So there’s an old bull and a young bull standing on a hill, overlooking a herd of cows. The young bull says to the old bull, “Let’s run down and mate with one of them.” The old bull responds: “No, let’s walk down and mate with all of them, one cow at a time.”

That (not particularly funny) joke, or some version of it, may or may not have something to do with the origin of the Hebrew phrase “para para” (pa-RA pa-RA), literally meaning “cow cow.” The idiom should be construed as advice that you ought to take it one thing at a time, whether or not getting to know bovines better is high on your to-do list.

The advice to tackle one cow at a time is similar to the advice writer Anne Lamott’s father gave to her brother when they were kids and he had to write a report on birds for school –  though her father wisely refrains from bringing animal copulation into the picture.

“We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and [my brother] was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead,” Lamott writes in her 2008 book “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” “Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com.

The Hebrew idiom may come from a crude joke about bovine lust.Credit: Ilya Melnikov