Cock and bull story
If you visit the village of Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire, near Milton Keynes, you will find two drinking establishments on the High Street, the Cock and the Bull. Conveniently situated on what was Watling Street, now the A5, the village was a popular resting spot for coach travellers travelling to and from London and the North. The locals were keen for gossip and local news and in the heyday of coach travel, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a competition developed between travellers and locals as to who could concoct the most outlandish and fanciful stories.
Alas, despite the best efforts of Stony Stratford to argue otherwise, this charming story is almost certainly a cock and bull story, a phrase used to describe an excuse or explanation which comprises of a story which is implausible. For a more likely origin we have to travel over the Channel to France.
In Respit de la Mort, written by Jean Le Fèvre de Ressons in around 1376, we find the passage: tant ay sailli du cocq en l’asne/ et ay divers Chemins tenu/ que je suy jusquez chy venu”, which translates to “so much have I sprung from the cock to the ass/ and have divers paths taken/ that I have up to here come”. That the phrase was used to describe the abrupt switching of conversation from one topic to another without any apparent rhyme or reason is illustrated by Randle Cotgrave’s definition, in 1611, of the phrase in his useful Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues; “sauter du coq à l‘asne. To run, without order, out of one matter into another”.
It was still used in this sense, mirroring the French phrase, a century later. Robert Nelson’s 1715 translation of Thomas à Kempis’ The Christian’s Exercise: or Rules to live above the world while we are in it (a worthy tome, I’m sure) contains the passage when discussing people whose words and actions are muddled, “but they skip from a Cock to a Bull”.
Perhaps more germane to our enquiries, un coq-à-l’āne as a noun meant an abrupt change of subject but was also used to describe a form of satirical and burlesque epistle consisting of fanciful and incoherent ramblings, popularised by the Renaissance poet, Clément Marot. By the early seventeenth century the Scots were using cockalane, clearly based on the French word, to describe a satire or a lampoon or a rambling, disconnected story. Cotgrave defined coq-à-l’asne as a “libell, pasquin (a type of lampoon), satyre”.
The first recorded usage of cock and bull story south of the border appeared in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, but revised in 1628 to include this description of the behaviour of some men; “[their] sole delight is, to take Tobacco & drinke all day long in a Taurne or Ale-house, to discourse, sing, iest, roare, talke of a Cock and a Bull ouer a pot..”. Sounds good to me and would certainly clear my blues away.
Although coach travel was not an unknown thing in Morton’s day, I think the derivation from the French phrase is more likely. But we still haven’t explained why the French ass becomes the English bull. Help may be at hand form our old friend, John Taylor, the water poet. He wrote an anthology of poems, published in 1630, entitled Wit and Mirth, subtitled “made yp, and fashioned into clinches, bulls, quirkes, Yerkes, quips, and jerkes”. Clearly, a bull was a made-up story of dubious veracity.
It makes sense but then again, this too could be a cock and bull story.