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One of my favorite pastimes is to find out the origins of common sayings or phrases. So, I was thrilled when my author friend Sebastian White (of Quirky Claus fame)  alerted me to The Phrase Finder, a wonderful resource for anyone with a passion for English.

In true English fashion, The Phrase Finder explains the meanings and origins of thousands of English idioms, phrases, and sayings such as:

  • Proverbs – a list of hundreds of the proverbs that give meaning to our language like no other form of expression.
  • American Idioms – Divided by a common language? Not when you understand the phrases that were born in the USA.
  • Phrases coined by Shakespeare – He gave us more words and expressions than anyone else.
  • Nautical phrases – the phrases came from our nautical friends.
  • Phrases from the Bible – the single book that has given more sayings, idioms, and proverbs to the English language than any other.
  • Famous Last Words – when it comes to memorable quotations, many prominent people save the best for last. Also, a special form of last words – notable suicide notes.

So, what’s with the cock-up?

The origins of cock-up | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Comic by Itchy Feet

A delightful example of what you can find in The Phrase Finder’s pages is the explanation for that very British expression, the cock-up. Meaning a blunder; a confused situation, its origin most likely has no vulgar meaning, as is often assumed in the US (what Americans might make of Robert Burns’ poem, ‘Cock up your beaver‘, is best left to the imagination. What Burns was actually referring to was adorning a beaver fur hat by putting a cock’s feather into it.)

‘Cock’, in the sense of this term, means ‘stand up conspicuously’, ‘turn up at the edge’, ‘bend at an angle’ etc. This is the sense of the early usage of the term ‘cock-up’, in the terms ‘cock-up one’s ears’, ‘cock-up one’s nose’. In the 17th and 18th centuries, people were also often advised to ‘cock-up’ their bonnets, eyes, even legs. The expression ‘cock a snook’ also derives from that same sense of ‘cock’.

While a vulgar interpretation is plausible, there is a score of alternative explanations:

  • The accidental putting up (into flight) of woodcocks during a hunt.
  • The accidental leaving of the ends of ship’s spars in a tilted, that is, ‘cocked’, position.
  • The accidental leaving of the spigots (a.k.a. cocks) on beer barrels.
  • The incorrect placement of the cock-feather when loading a longbow.
  • The accidental misalignment of text in a line of type. (The large capital letters that used to be commonly seen at the beginning of paragraphs are called ‘cock-up’ letters.)

The most likely of these is the first one; ie the ‘putting birds to flight‘ theory. The American writer Henry Herbert, using the appropriate pseudonym of Frank Forester, published the novel ‘The Warwick Woodlands’, in 1851. That contains a reference to ‘cock-up’:

You’ll find a blind track there, right through the brush – keep your eyes skinned, do! There’ll be a cock up before you’re ten yards in.

A hunter’s mistaken disturbance of a bird and our current understanding of the term ‘cock-up’ match, so that has some claim to being more believable than the other suggestions. It is still speculative though and is probably as far as we can go with those ‘explanations’.

* No, the fact that today’s my wedding anniversary has nothing to do with this post’s choice of subject

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