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I came across this phrase in the first Chapter of The Long Goodbye (written by Raymond Chandler). Is it an idiom? Or something indecent? Here is the context:

"Sure," he said cynically. "Why waste it on a lush? Them curves and all."

"You know him?"

"I heard the dame call him Terry. Otherwise I don't know him from a cow's caboose. But I only been here two weeks."

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The standard expression in English is "to not know (someone) from Adam", where Adam is the first man created by God (from the Bible), and it means that you wouldn't recognize that someone if you saw them.

The expression you quote is whimsical, but not indecent. It takes the usual expression a step further: instead of not being able to tell someone apart from another person, you don't even know if they're a person or not.

While "cow's caboose" does refer to the rear end of a cow, the word "caboose" in this sense is one of the least offensive words you could use for "rear end". It's so inoffensive that it's something that you could probably find in children's books (here is an example).

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    The usage of "caboose" to mean one's backside is a colloquialism that dates to the early 20th century, particularly in New England, gaining popularity through the 1930s and 40s - it's not something you'll commonly hear now. The Long Goodbye was published in 1953 and even by then it was in decline in conversational language.
    – J...
    Nov 23 '18 at 13:25
  • @J I don't know about that. I think it depends on the area, I still hear it quite a bit whenever I am around people from the southeast US. Particularly when they are talking to/about children.
    – Jake
    Nov 23 '18 at 14:49
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    Also, alliteration makes it sound "better". Nov 23 '18 at 15:38
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    @Jake I guess I mean that the usage in the context of the Long Goodbye is much more cool-cat edgy 40s slang - the kind of thing you'd hear from gangsters or detective/PI novels and stories (hardboiled or noir of the period). I don't think that usage is really alive anymore, other than for historical purposes. Using it as a cute word with kids it carries a bit of a different tone and meaning. It's not a 'hip' word anymore, I guess. In OP's quote I'm imagining martinis, gambling, and tommy guns entering the story somewhere. You don't hear 'caboose' in that context these days.
    – J...
    Nov 23 '18 at 17:59
  • @J... yeah it would be jarring to hear a rapper use it in these streets. One more goal once I become Grammy nominated.
    – Jake
    Nov 23 '18 at 18:20
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I've never heard this expression before and it doesn't seem to be a well-established idiom either, but from the context that I see I can conclude that it simply means that the speaker would not be able to tell the deference between a cow's caboose and this guy called Terry if he had to look at both. It's really just a joke. In other words, what he seems to be saying is that he doesn't know anything about this guy except that his name is Terry.

A related expression would be not know something from something else. For example:

He's so bad with computers that he doesn't even know Windows from Linux.

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  • It isn't an "expression". It's just creative speaking.
    – Lambie
    Nov 23 '18 at 20:12
  • Right. I'm rather using "expression" in a very general sense of this word; as something that's expressed verbally. Nov 23 '18 at 20:22

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