Tag Archives: John Palsgrave

What Is The Origin Of (298)?…


It is a state I have to admit I am rarely in but being cock-a-hoop is being in a state of jubilation, of extreme happiness. The origins of this phrase, though, are shrouded in mystery and anyone who can provide a definitive and incontrovertible history of it would rightly be entitled to pat themselves on the back and, yes, be cock-a-hoop.  

Being cock-a-hoop may be as a result of imbibing more alcoholic beverages than are good for you. Thomas Blount in his Glossographia, a dictionary of what he deemed to be difficult words which he compiled in 1670, helpfully offered this explanation. “our Ancestors call’d that the Cock which we call a Spigget, or perhaps they used such Cocks in their vessels, as are still retained in water-pipes; the Cock being taken out, and laid on the hoop of the vessel, they used to drink up the ale as it ran out without intermission, (in Staffordshire now call’d Stunning a barrel of Ale) and then they were Cock-on-hoop, i.e at the height of mirth and jollity; a saying still retained”.

This explanation seems to fit the earliest examples of the phrase where it had the sense of turning on the taps and letting the drink flow. John Palsgrave translated a Latin play written by the Dutch humanist, Guilelmus Gnapheus, into English in 1540, entitled The comedye of Acolastus. There he wrote “I haue good cause to set the cocke on the hope, and make gaudye chere”. Thomas More in his A dialoge of comfort against tribulation, published posthumously in 1553, takes a pot shot at those who avoid penance but “syt them downe and drynke well for our sauiors sake, set cocke a hop and fyll in al the cuppes at once”. And for the physician, Andrew Borde, it meant to abandon yourself to carefree enjoyment, as this passage from his The first boke of the introduction of knowledge from 1549 shows; “What should I do, butset cocke on the hoope?

Serious etymologists are somewhat sceptical of Blount’s explanation, it is asserted rather than illustrated with evidence, but the survey above suggests that there is something in what he says, at least as far as its use in the 16th century goes. The suspicion, though, is that this explanation may be too clever by half. What is wrong with a cock being, well, a cockerel, it had this sense from the 17th century, and hoop being an anglicisation of the French word huppe, meaning a tufted crest. Edward Philips, a contemporary of Blount’s, had a foot in both camps when he out forward this explanation in his A General English Dictionary from 1678; from “French coc-a-huppe, a Cock with a Crest, or from the Staffordshire custom of laying the Cock or Spigot upon the Barrel, for the company to drink without intermission”.     

Hensleigh Wedgwood, in his A Dictionary of English Etymology from 1865, gave a more picaresque explanation; “a metaphor taken from the sport of cock-throwing used on festive occasions, when a cock was set on an eminence to be thrown at by the guests”. Leopold Warner, in his Manners, Customs and Observances, published in 1895, described the “sport” of cock-throwing, a feature of Shrovetide, as involving the incarceration of a cock in a pot with its head and tail exposed and the object of the exercise was to break the pot with a well-aimed blow from a cudgel from a few yards’ distance.

More prosaically, it could owe its origin to a pub sign. As literacy was low and pubs needed to advertise their whereabouts, they used colourful signs. Many pubs featured signs with names involving foul and hoops. The hoop may have been the hoop of a barrel or, more likely, feed, hoop being an old term for a heap of grain. The Clause Roll of Edward III from around 1335 features pubs with names such as the Hen on the Hoop and The Cock on the Hoop”. This explanation may be as good as any.

However you look at it, there is drink involved.

What Is The Origin Of (272)?…

Hem and haw

One of the many attributes a politician needs to get to the top of what is a slippery pole is the ability to deflect a question, keeping their options open and issuing a cloud of words that obfuscates the simple fact that they have not addressed the question. Perhaps W.B Yeats was right when he observed in his poem, The Second Coming, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. To hem and haw is to speak hesitantly or indecisively, usually with lots of ums and erms interspersing the trickle of discernible words.

The two verbs conjoined by and both had independent existences before they came together. Hem is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “an interjectional utterance like a slight half cough, used to attract attention, give warning, or express doubt or hesitation”. It is what grammarians call an echoic verb, one that imitates the sound itself, in this instance of someone clearing their throat as if to speak. It has lent itself to the word ahem, which is used as a more polite way to clear one’s throat, either preparatory to speech or to warn someone of your presence.

Haw also echoes the sound it represents, defined by the OED as “an expression of hesitation”. It is one of those nothing words that pepper people’s daily speech, like, uh, um, huh, a verbal stopgap to allow someone to gather their thoughts and continue with whatever it is they have to say.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the two should have been put together, suggesting the impression of someone clearing their throat and gathering their thoughts before launching into the next part of their dialogue. One of the characters in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from the late 14th century, is described as someone who “hewed” and “gan to hum”. John Palsgrave, an English priest and compiler of his Lesclarcissement de la langue francyose from 1530, in which he sought to explain to his English readers the intricacies of the French tongue, was probably the first to put the two elements together; “he hummeth and heath and wyll nat come out withall”.       

The English language was even more fluid in those days than it is now and variants such as hum and haw or um and ah or hem and hawke began to appear. It seemed that you could perm any two from the collection and the meaning would remain the same. In American English hem and haw is more common whereas in English as spoken in Blighty we seem to prefer hum and haw.

Jonathan Swift, in his 1728 poem called My Lady’s Lamentation used hum and haw, albeit the other way round, for the purposes of the rhyme; “he haws and he hums./ At last out it comes”.  A meeting with royalty may be a justifiable occasion for a bit of hemming and hawing. In this instance from 1786 it clearly had the desired effect; “I hemmed and hawed…but the Queen stopped reading”.

Haw also has the sense, at least these days, of a rather lofty, affected way of speaking. It is no coincidence that this was reflected in the British nickname of Lord Haw-Haw given to William Joyce who broadcast regularly to these shores at the behest of Hitler during the Second World War.

At least, someone who hems and haws is perhaps giving some careful consideration to what they are saying, which can’t be a bad thing, unless they are a politician, of course.

What Is The Origin Of (100)?…


Curry favour

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!