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According to Wiktionary, meaning #5 of cow is:

(derogatory, informal) A woman who is considered despicable in some way, especially one considered to be fat, lazy, ugly, argumentative, mean or spiteful.

Is this always so? I'm thinking of the film title Poor Cow. I haven't seen the film yet, but from the synopsis, from knowing his style of film, and from the film title in other languages, I rather have the impression that Loach has a sympathy for the main character. A derogatory name would not suit that. Is cow derogatory in the context of the film title Poor Cow?

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Cow is slightly unusual in that its level of offence can be altered fairly drastically with the way that it is said. Normally, it is derogatory, but in the right context it can almost be meant in an affectionate way, and I think that this is the meaning that Loach is going for. Its the kind of thing you'd mutter under your breath---whilst shaking your head---as you considered the woman's situation.

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    It's not that unusual: "poor bastard", "poor cunt", "poor fool", etc, could all be sympathetic. They (like poor cow) acknowledge that someone is in a bad state, but can still be sympathetic about it.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 10 at 16:17
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The wiktionary definition you quote gives the correct impression that calling a woman a cow is derogatory. In the phrase poor cow, the word poor slightly softens the judgment, indicating some empathy with the woman's situation.

The imdb link you provided says:

A young woman lives a life filled with bad choices. She marries and has a child with an abusive thief at a young age who quickly ends up in prison. Left alone she takes up with his mate (another thief) who seems to give her some happiness but who also ends up in the nick. She then takes up with a series of seedy types who offer nothing but momentary pleasure. Her son goes missing and she briefly comes to grips with what is most important to her.

From this précis it isn't evident that any of fat, lazy, ugly, argumentative, mean or spiteful actually apply, although lazy is a strong possibility, in the sense of being too lazy to think things through and make better decisions.

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Also may be referencing her role as a mother, an animal which produces milk, therefore reinforcing the central theme of motherhood. Maybe a stretch but she also is the sole provider as she breastfeeds the baby at the beginning of the film, and Tom cannot provide the same care for the child. This emphasises that she is a single mother despite being married for some time or parental support from Dave.

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    Jan 10 at 21:46

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