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.