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Hay mow

Dear Word Detective: I grew up on a farm in central Illinois. We always referred to the upper part of the barn as the “hay mow.” A great place to play! My friend who grew up on a Missouri farm didn’t know what I was talking about. She said they simply called it the “hay loft.” So what does “mow” mean? It’s not pronounced like “moe,” but like “cow.” — Susan.

Interesting question. It took me a while after moving from New York City to rural Ohio to learn the difference between hay (various kinds of grass, etc., used primarily as food for livestock) and straw (dried stalks of threshed grain, used primarily for livestock bedding). A few years ago, our neighbor, who has about three acres of front lawn (as do we), got sick of having to mow it every week (as do I). Now he just mows around the edges and grows hay in the middle, which he sells to a local farmer. I’d love to do the same, but we have too many trees. Perhaps we should sell both hay and firewood.

The key to the mystery of “hay-mow” (and the reason that the “mow” in “hay-mow” rhymes with “cow”) is that there are actually two separate “mows” in English. (Truth be told, there are eleven “mows,” six nouns and five verbs, but we’re only going to examine the two most common forms.)

When we “mow” (rhymes with “moe”) the lawn, we’re using the verb “to mow,” meaning “to cut down grass or grain with a scythe or machine.” This “mow” is very old word, going back to Indo-European roots with the sense of “to cut.” The transferred sense of “mow” meaning “to cut down in battle; to destroy or kill indiscriminately or in great numbers” appeared in the 16th century. The use of “mow down” to mean “strike with an automobile” is first attested in print inĀ  the 1960s, but it’s probably much older.

The “mow” in “hay-mow” (rhymes with “cow”) is a completely unrelated noun meaning “a heap or stack of hay, grain, corn, etc.” or “a place, especially a part of a barn, where hay or corn is heaped up and stored.” This “mow” is also a very old word (“muga” in Old English) that comes from Germanic roots meaning “heap.” While we’re at it, “hay” meaning “grass cut for fodder” is a similarly ancient word, in this case going back to roots meaning “that which can be mowed,” presumably with a scythe or similar tool.

So a “hay-mow” is simply a heap (“mow,” the “rhymes with cow” one) of hay, which may or may not be stored in a barn. Strictly speaking, a pile of hay (aka “haystack”) in a field is also a “hay-mow,” though the term is so associated with a pile of hay stored in a barn that “mow” has also come to mean that part of the barn itself. As you’ve noticed, such a part of the barn, if elevated, is also known as a “hay loft” (“loft” being an Old Norse word meaning “air or sky” as well as “upper room”).

So there’s that, but here’s this: there’s also the curious term “mowhay” to consider, although you’re very unlikely to encounter it in the American Midwest. A “mowhay” is an enclosure (often a little shed or enclosed yard) used to store a “mow” or “mows,” heaps of hay, corn, etc. Interestingly, the “hay” in “mowhay” is not the fodder sort of “hay,” though that is often its contents. This “hay” is a very old English dialect word meaning “fence” or “hedge,” and comes, in fact, from the same roots that gave us “hedge” (which used to mean any sort of boundary or fence, not necessarily one composed of shrubbery). So a “mowhay” could as well be called a “hay-hay,” assuming you’re not afraid of being mistaken for Krusty the Clown.

17 comments to Hay mow

  • The Barley Mow is a common name for pubs in the English Midlands (and maybe other parts of the country), with the ‘cow’ pronunciation; it’s puzzled me since I was a kid. There’s a folk song called ‘Good luck to The Barley Mow’. It’s one of those cumulative ones (like ‘The old lady who swallowed a fly), and list everybody remotely connected with the pub, from the brewer to the slavey (serving-girl).
    But for some still-puzzling reason, the name is pronounced the ‘moe’ way. No doubt a modern misinterpretation of a printed text. I’ll continue to learn my traditional songs in the traditional way (from gramophone records).

  • […] with close to 3000 bales stacked in the hay mow, and just two more fields to mow, one more that is ready to bale, this crazy summer is working out […]

  • Katherine

    I grew up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario (Canada) and we called that part of our barn, where the hay was stored, the haymow :-)

  • bob

    I grew up in northern wisconsin and we called the top part of the barn the hay mow as well – it means the part of the barn, not the hay piled there.

  • Marcia Buck Barker

    Growing up on the Maine coast we played in the mow. It was part of the barn not the hay.

  • Judith

    Grew up in North Dakota and am of Norwegian heritage. As a child we loved to play in the hay mow (rhymes with cow) on Grandpa’s farm. Interchangeable with hayloft.

  • Marceil Skifter

    Originally from California, I didn’t know the difference between a haymow and hayloft, and thought for years the terms were interchangeable.
    My husband, a Minnesota farm boy has finally educated me as to the difference.
    Everyone knows what a “loft” is in a house – made with three walls and open along one side that overlooks the lower floor. It is the same with a hayloft – hay can be pitched out over the open side to anywhere below to feed cattle (or straw for bedding).
    A haymow, which is usually found in colder parts of the country, is a second story that covers the entire area below. To access the hay, one climbs a ladder to reach the opening in the floor of the haymow (which is also the “ceiling” of the first floor)and the hay is pitched down through that hole to feed the cattle below.(Both a loft and a haymow have a big door that opens in the front to the outside, as well, as this is how the day is put up in the mow.)
    Having the mow built across the first floor, where the cows are kept keeps the heat in during the cold winter months. An open loft would mean the heat rises to the top of the barn and doesn’t keep the cattle as warm. (The barns are not heated, of course, except for the body heat of the cows.) Also, there are almost always doors on the openings to keep the heat from escaping.
    He also pointed out the opening to the mow is usually along the side where the cows are lined up in their stanchions, and situated halfway between the cows for better dispersal. If cows are lined up on both sides, there might be two openings (one on either side), as it was in his family’s barn.
    So, there’s everything you always wanted to know about haymows vs haylofts!

    • Jean

      Thank you for posting this explanation, very interesting reading, I enjoyed it, bringing back many memories of growing up in Iowa :-)

  • Don

    Grew up on the farm in Concord Twp, Jackson County, Michigan. Our barn was L-Shaped and had three separate mows (rhymes with cow). Dad planted Timothy & Clover which we’d bale and put up in one mow. We also had Alfalfa which we’d bale and put up in another mow. We’d harvest wheat and oats and then bale the straw and put that up in another mow. Timothy & Clover we’d feed to the yearlings, steers and bulls. Dad would feed the Timothy to the milk cows (Holsteins). The straw was used for bedding in the pens and stanchions.

  • Don

    Oops, …feed the Alfalfa to the milk cows…

    • Jean

      Very interesting reading! Don, do you know why certain animals were fed different types of hay? Just curious :-)

      • Daryl Chesterman

        Jean, since Don did not reply to your question of “why certain animals were fed different types of hay”, I will give you my best answer. Even back in the day when Don’s father fed different hay to different animals, they had figured out that milk cows produced more, and better tasting milk, when fed alfalfa, than other types of plant feed. Steers, yearlings and bulls, did not need as “rich” of feed as alfalfa, and were thus fed the timothy & clover mix. I’m guessing that the milk cows were also fed some grain at milking time. Back in that time, it was believed that steers and yearlings didn’t need the nutrition that milk cows needed, and thus the less-rich feed of timothy & clover. The timothy supplied roughage(filler, or bulk) along with the richer clover(clover nutrients being similar to alfalfa). The bull actually didn’t need the richness of the timothy & clover, but, since that is what they had to feed to it, that is what it got. The bull didn’t need to grow more frame or be fattened, it just needed to be kept healthy for the breeding season.

        My grandparents in west-central Indiana had a hay mow (cow) in which they stored baled hay, and their sons would carry bales over to the holes they had by the wall on one side, cut the twines, and push the hay down the holes, where it would fall into the stanchions below, to be distributed to the cows they milked.

  • Christina

    Lovely bit of research – interesting all the way to Crusty!

    I can’t help thinking of the word maw (gaping open mouth) when I see “mow” in the context of a barn! The hayloft is, to me at least, a big open mouth, waiting to receive hay from the field, and digest/regurgitate it in bits as needed.

    In any case, I can’t wait to use the term with one of my horsie friends: “Hey, where’s your hay mow?” lol!

  • Suzanne

    I thought everyone that said ‘mow’ was just mispronouncing the word ‘mound’

  • dan

    1950’s and ’60’s in Wisconsin, we had farm neighbors on both sides. Elderly sisters on one side had a large bank barn with a loft on one end they used for bales of straw, as it’s lighter, and the hay mow was underneath (also had a naughty little German ditty about the hay mow, I shan’t repeat). They argued once about whether the haystack was also a mow, or a ‘mound’. I remember Timothy was reserved for horses, alfalfa for cows and they also put cracked corn/chopped sorghum silage in two silos for cows.

  • Mark

    I grew up in rural Indiana and played and worked as a child in the hay mow (rhymes with cow). Sometimes you had to use the term loft for some non-locals to understand or when friends from the city came to visit and were clueless about climbing thirty feet into the mow and jumping or swinging from a rope and landing in a large pile of broken bales of straw below. Guess I understand now why there were a few pretty bad sprains or broken arms and legs….lol

  • I grew up in the cheese-making dairy area along the Illinois-Wisconsin border. “All” the dairy barns had mows, as described above, and the hay was “always” baled alfalfa. Local usage there included a verb “to mow” (cow pronunciation) which meant the orderly stacking of bales as they tumbled into the hay-mow off the elevator. Has anyone else heard this “mowing” usage?
    (Curious city-folk trying to visualize this should Google “hay elevator”). I recall going out once with a local farm girl and asking what she enjoyed doing. Her reply was mowing hay (cow, not hoe). Kinda impressive, she….

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