What do the words holy cow and holy shit mean? I have read them in dramas and online articles. Are they offensive? Is it normal for a person to use it?

  • 2
    Note: holy cow is entirely different from sacred cow. Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 7:05
  • This is mild (verbal, formulaic) profanity (not real desecration). See definition 1b of expletive here: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/expletive
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 10:44
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    "Holy shit" would be considered crude, offensive, and impolite by many speakers, especially in certain circumstances (such as at the dinner table); "holy cow" is a "sanitized" version which very few people would find offensive.
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 10:53

2 Answers 2


Both are idiomatic interjections:

Holy cow:

interjection, Slang. 1. (used to express bewilderment, surprise, or astonishment.)

Holy shit:

  1. (idiomatic, vulgar, slang) Expression of terror, awe, surprise, astonishment, etc., often at something seen for the first time or remembered immediately before using this term.

They are well-known expressions in US English, but are only be used in certain contexts, generally when someone is actually quite surprised by something they have just experienced or been told. You might expect a person to use one of these interjections after seeing a building explode or a serious car crash. They could also be appropriate after dropping a heavy object on your foot or burning yourself on a hot stove. They would even work in milder situations, such as being astonished at seeing a great natural wonder for the first time.

"Holy shit" contains a vulgarity (a "swear word"). Whether you would use it depends both on the culture and the situation. It may be a perfectly reasonable thing for a steelworker to say just after having narrowly escaped a major workplace accident. It would be an extremely inappropriate thing for a lawyer to say in court after a surprising loss. Since it is very possible to offend people by swearing, I would avoid doing so unless you're certain it would be appropriate in a particular situation.

"Holy cow" is a milder expression with the same meaning, but because it does not contain a vulgarity, it is appropriate to use in situations where profanity is unacceptable. There are many other words that can be used with "holy" for the same purpose, all substituting for vulgar or religious terms.

Both expressions would generally be used in casual speech, but not in writing or more formal situations.


Just putting in my “two cents” here. In my experience “holy cow” is not commonly used in conversation in the US any more, though any native English speaker would know what you meant if you said it. I would say it was more common 30 or more years ago. “Holy shit” is, however, still quite commonly used in the US.

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