I have spent most of my life trying to avoid the accusation that I was currying favour. When we use the phrase we mean that the person is trying to keep on the good side of someone else, often by carrying out acts to keep in favour. When you stop and think about it, it seems a very odd phrase, particularly as we nowadays associate the word curry as a noun with a spicy dish from the Indian subcontinent and as a verb with the act of spicing up a dish. But our phrase has nothing to do with the dish.
Rather from the late 13th century curry was used in the context of grooming a horse, owing its origin to the Anglo-French curreir, meaning to curry comb a horse and which in turn came from the Old French, correier, meaning to put in order, prepare, curry. Having sorted that out, it won’t surprise you that favour is a form of horse, although how it got there is rather convoluted.
Although English is a fascinating amalgam of words and roots from disparate sources, one of our endearing characteristics is our inability to get our tongues around words of foreign origin. Our particular deafness to phrases from other lands leads to an amazing number of mash-ups. Favour in our phrase is a mishearing or misspelling of fauvel.
In 1310 Gervais du Bus wrote a satirical poem entitled Roman de Fauvel, in which Fauvel, a vain and ambitious horse, deceives and corrupts the greedy French courtiers and churchmen. They humiliate themselves by bowing down and stroking the coat of their false leader. In other words, they are currying (combing) Fauvel. Fauvel or its variant favvel is an acrostic made up of the first letters of the seven deadly sins – flaterie, avarice, vilanie (wrath), variete (inconstancy), envie and lachete (cowardice). Favel is also used to denote the colour fallow, a sort of pale brown, which in mediaeval times in association with a horse or donkey was a symbol of duplicity, greed or deceit.
In 1530 in his Lesclarcissement de la lange Francoyse, John Palsgrave defined curryfavell as a flatterer. Notwithstanding that, there is evidence that favell had been converted to favour by 1510. Alexander Barclay wrote in his The mirrour of good manners, “flatter not as do some, with none curry fauour”. An annotation to translation of the New Testament of 1557 records that the intent of Matthew 8 verse 20 was “by this means to courry fauour with the worlde.” It is tempting to think that favour and favell coexisted happily aside each other until at some point du Bus’ poem was forgotten, people puzzled what fauvel was all about and quietly dropped it.
Not unsurprisingly, given fact that the Orient was pretty unknown territory to the insular English until the 16th century, the noun curry which comes from the Tamil kari meaning sauce or relish for rice did not come into circulation until then. The first instance of its usage in print appears to be in a translation of Van Linschoten’s His Discours of Voyages into ye Easte and West Indies of 1598, “which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat soure..but it tasteth well and is called Carriel”.
So now we know!