According to Cocker
It is rare in my etymological researches to be have nailed the origin of a phrase but I am pretty confident I have done so with this phrase I stumbled upon when reading one of R Austin Freeman’s Thorndyke detective stories, Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke from 1931. It means something that is done properly and in accordance with established rules and methodologies. But who was Cocker?
Edward Cocker, that’s who, who lived between 1631-75.,His Cocker’s Arithmetick, published posthumously in 1677, was to become the bane of the lives of many a schoolboy (and the odd lass) for centuries to come. So successful was the book to become that there were 112 editions of it, reaching its 20th edition by 1700 and its 52nd edition in 1748. Freeman would almost certainly have sampled its delights as a boy.
The delicious irony, of course, is that Cocker, although a master at a grammar school in Southwark, was better known for his penmanship and his mastery of the art of engraving in his time rather than his mathematical prowess. He appears several times in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, particularly as the only man the diarist knows who has the skill to engrave some tables on his new slide rule. On August 10, 1664 the diarist noted, “so I find out Cocker, the famous writing-master…well pleased with his company and better with his judgement upon my Rule, I left him and home”.
We can only deduce that Crocker perfected his skills in drumming mathematical techniques into the unwilling skulls of his pupils whilst teaching. Part of his Arithmetick phenomenal success was due to the extremely practical approach to teaching the subject, concentrating specifically on the techniques and skills that tradespeople, builders and the like would need to go about their daily lives. The playwright, Arthur Murphy, gave it an early namecheck in The Apprentice in 1756 in this exchange between a despairing father, Wingate, and his reckless son, Dick; “Wingate: Let me see no more Play-Books. Dick: Cocker’s Arithmetick, Sir? Wingate: Ay, Cocker’s Arithmetick – study Figures, and they’ll carry you through the World”.
Well-meaning men would give a copy of the book to children. Samuel Johnson, whilst visiting the Isle of Skye in September 1773, recorded in a letter that a little girl he had met “engaged me so much that I made her a present of Cocker’s Arithmetick”. Her reaction to this gift is unrecorded. And James Boswell recorded in his Life of Samuel Johnson that the great man, when asked why he travelled with a copy of Cocker’s, pontificated thus; “when you have read through a book of entertainment, you know it, and it can do no more for you; but a book of science is inexhaustible”.
Inevitably, Cocker’s name, and by inference his methodology, became the yardstick of mathematical accuracy. The Town and Country Magazine of March 1785, reporting on a failed attempt to raise the stakes in a card game, noted that “she never played for above sixpences, and added, that her husband had calculated, according to Cocker, that an alderman might be ruined in a month, if his wife cut in for shillings”.
It was also used in newspaper articles to confirm the veracity of a calculation. The Morning Post on October 25, 1816 reported that “the Dividend payable at the Bank upon 23l. 8s. is (according to Cocker) 23s. 22d. per annum”. By the time of Tom Brown at Oxford, written by Thomas Hughes and published in 1861, it had become a general bit of slang, used to denote what should happen; “According to Cocker. Who is Cocker? Oh, I don’t know; some old fellow who wrote the rules of arithmetic, I believe; it’s only a bit of slang”. In the negative, as Freeman used it, it meant something was not quite right; “there was no sign of the driver, and no one minding the horse; and as this was not quite according to Cocker, it naturally attracted his attention”.
The phrase has almost disappeared from sight these days. Now that can’t be according to Cocker.