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Today I've come across an expression in a magazine article which is not quite clear to me:

Today, amid confected rows about "fake news", reporters who unearthed a new Watergate would start with roughly half the country ready to disbelieve them. Finally, the Nixon museum shows how the symbolic power of the presidency can cow dissent, even in this skeptical age.

Source: Remembering an accomplished but fatally flawed president from The Economist

Could you please help me understand the words in bold type? Perhaps, there is a typo in the sentence, and the right expression should be "can sow dissent".

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The normal usage of cow as a verb is passive (rather than active as here), but the basic meaning does not change significantly: in this case, the intent is to suggest that the "symbolic power of the presidency" can intimidate people from openly expressing opposition to the government's policies.

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    Having read the full source, I think this is indeed a "clever journalist", so I'm deleting my answer. The full context isn't consistent with "sowing dissent". Furthermore, the Economist is very well edited source, with journalists able to bend and create new language. Given the full source I've changed my mind I think cow is being used as a verb here, in a figurative way. As suggested in this answer. – James K Jul 24 '17 at 20:12
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Cow is correctly used as a verb here.

: to destroy the resolve or courage of; also : to bring to a state or an action by intimidation —used with into

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cow

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    How do you intimidate dissent? I don't think it's used correctly. I think the author meant to say "bully people who disagree with you into submission", but couldn't find a way to say it with the right tone. – ColleenV Jul 24 '17 at 17:02
  • @ColleenV: I think you're falling into a trap more associated with nns (in the general area of anthropomorphism and "conscious agents"). There's nothing wrong with discouraging dissent (or encouraging popular unrest, etc.), and I don't really see a problem with using cow in a syntactic context where strictly speaking what's being cowed are the people who might otherwise have been inclined to express dissent, rather than the dissent itself. – FumbleFingers Jul 24 '17 at 17:27
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    @FumbleFingers I actually agree with you, but the way this answer presents it doesn't really explain that which was the point of my naive "how do you intimidate dissent" question. – ColleenV Jul 24 '17 at 17:29
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    @ColleenV: Ah. I see now. That's probably why you're a mod and I'm not. You're looking at the issue from the perspective of a nns (only working with the definition as cited here), whereas I was reacting to your comment as one native speaker to another. I suppose in a way my comment was on the right track, since I did say "superficially anthropomorphist" constructions like that can confuse nns. So that particular aspect should be explicitly addressed by any answer here, rather than left in the (implied) background as something that any (native) speaker would be expected to realise anyway. – FumbleFingers Jul 25 '17 at 12:59
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Having seen the full source, I've changed my mind. The full context isn't consistent with "sowing dissent". Furthermore, the Economist is very well edited source, with journalists able to bend and create new language. Given the full source I've changed my mind I think cow is being used as a verb here, in a figurative way.

My previous answer below

I'm reasonably confident that this is a typo. There is a verb "to cow" meaning to frighten and dominate. It's quite rare (though more common in the passive voice: "to be cowed"), and its object is the person or thing being dominated.

There is, however, a fairly common two-word phrase "sow dissent", meaning to act to propagate disruptive ideas. While it may be a writer purposefully mixing this meaning with the verb "to cow" (and in doing so, creating a new expression) On the balance of probabilities I think this is a simple typo.

  • It's a perfectly valid use of cow as a verb; see my explanation above. – Jeff Zeitlin Jul 24 '17 at 16:33
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    I think the intended meaning is suppressing dissent, not sowing dissent. I don't think it's a typo. I think it is just another example of poor writing. The phrase seems to be fairly common among journalists and bloggers, so it's acceptable from a usage perspective. I will still have an unfavorable view of the journalists that use it though ;) – ColleenV Jul 24 '17 at 17:15
  • I still think that there is a typo. The article is about the Richard Nixon Museum in Yorba Linda, California. I'll cite a larger quotation: "Today, amid confected rows about "fake news", reporters who unearthed a new Watergate would start with roughly half the country ready to disbelieve them. Finally, the Nixon museum shows how the symbolic power..." (economist.com/news/united-states/…) – Yulia Jul 24 '17 at 17:55

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