Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Cock - A Study in Fowl Language

A proud cock with a red crest
The Rooster
(photo by Tanya Impeartrice)

COCK

Noun.
[Old English cocc, kok = Old Norse kokkr, probably from medieval Latin coccus (Salic Laws), of imitative origin;
reinforced in Middle English by Old & modern French coq.]

Branch I
1(a) A male bird, especially a male domestic fowl.
As 2nd element, of combination also in specific names of birds (usually distinctively of the male.) OE

1(b) A weathercock. LME

1(c) A woodcock. M16

2 The crowing of a domestic cock. LME

3 The leader, the chief, the best. Usually followed by of. M16

4 Originally, a person who fights pluckily. 
Now a familiar form of address to a man, especially in old cock. M17

5 A male lobster, crab or salmon. L17

Branch II
6 A tapped spout; a tap, a valve for controlling flow. L15

7 A lever in a gun raised ready to be released by the trigger. M16

8(a) The pointer of a balance. E17

8(b) The gnomon of a sundial. E17

8(c) An overhanging bracket in a clock or watch supporting the outer end of the pivot of a wheel or pendulum. L17

9 The penis. Compare earlier PILLICOCK. Coarse slang. E17

10 CURLING. The circle at the end of the rink at which stones are aimed. L18

11 A cock-and-bull story; nonsense. Compare with POPPYCOCK. Slang. M19

A painting showing a family sitting in a circle watching a cockfight
A depiction of cockfighting by Paja Jovanovic, 1897

Cock is not a word that one can bandy about willy-nilly. As so often happens in the English language, a perfectly innocent term has been hijacked by crude blatherskites and misappropriated for coarser tongues. However, if one would take a moment to peruse the definitions of cock as a noun, one sees that it is, by and large, a most respectable word in every instance but one. What's more, many common English expressions that somehow utilise cock do so with no crudity whatsoever, other than that which is applied retrospectively and (usually) erroneously:

The Etymology of Cocky

For example, a common adjective to describe an arrogantly self-assured attitude is cocky, as in 'He's a cocky little smart alec.' While this is a broadly used colloquialism, I remember a time when a business colleague of my father's came to dinner, and in conversation used the word before immediately checking himself with an embarrassed glance toward the children at the table. But fear not, red-faced visitor! You said nothing wrong - cocky is derived directly from the definition of a male bird. In fact, it originally meant lecherous. One can well envision its genesis, with the image of a proud cock arrogantly strutting its stuff in front of the hens firmly in the mind of the first person to say: 'What a cocky so-and-so!'.

The Etymology of Cockpit

"Cocky?" I hear you protest. "No one thinks that's rude!" OK, I grant you that perhaps that was was an exception, and maybe on that occasion we simply had a particularly puritanical visitor (in our house cocky wasn't a proscribed word, but it was frowned upon). "But what about cockpit?" you say. "What better example is there than that of those bawdy RAF pilots of WWII employing crude sexual innuendo?"

Well, no, it's an oft told origin, but this isn't true either. Cockpit as a word for the control room or space of a craft is actually of nautical origin, being used for ships since the 1700s. Even then, there was nothing rude about it. Rather, it referenced a literal cock-pit, the enclosed space where cock-fighting matches were staged. It was transferred to aeroplanes in 1914, and then to the driving space of racing cars in the 1930s. And not once in the history of the word did any of our flying heroes make any connection between their plane's cockpit and ... well ... anything rude. Our chaps were far too Eton for any of that malarkey!

The Etymology of Cockalorum

Cockalorum is a delightful word for a self-important little man. There's nothing rude here - we've simply returned to the image of a strutting cock. The -alorum part is probably arbitrary because someone (rightly) thought it sounded funny; however, Merriam-Webster suggests it may be an alteration of an obsolete Dutch word, kockeloeren, meaning 'to crow'. Take your pick, as neither is remotely rude.

The Etymology of Cocksure

Cocksure means 'to be absolutely sure or convinced of something in one's own mind; self-confident, dogmatic, presumptuous', and it's got nothing to do with anything naughty. This developed from the meaning of 'one who fights pluckily', and later came to be associated with the male bird. Being cocksure isn't necessarily a good quality, but it's not a rude one.

The Etymology of Cock-up

Ah-ha! Cock-up! A bungle, a mistake. That's clearly rude. Except it isn't. Unlike the other cocky expressions here, cock-up doesn't derive from the noun at all, but rather from the verb to cock which, among other things, means to fight or quarrel, or to bend at an angle (as in 'a cocked cap'). Even this verb ultimately derives from the noun of the male bird, and the addition of the up part may be entirely arbitrary; much to the bafflement of English learners, we do love to gaily lob the word up into our phrasal verbs, as in eat up, beat up, cut up, etc.

There are a few theories as to how this cocky term ultimately took hold. Some have postulated that it refers to a miscocked flintlock pistol, which would be a cock-up of skull-splinteringly fatal proportions in a duel. Another theory is that a cock-up was a bungled approach when hunting game birds, startling them and causing them to squawk loudly with a cry that sounds like 'Cockup!' Finally (and my personal favourite), it's been suggested it could be an archery term; one of the feathers on an arrow is called the cock-feather, and when nocked this must always be pointed to the left (if the archer is right-handed) so that it doesn't interfere with the bowstring when it's released. If an archer mistakenly nocked the arrow cock up, it might spoil his shot.

Whatever the truth, the etymology of cock-up is solidly willy-free. Still, I'd be careful with this one - its root might not be genitaliacentric, but it does sound rude, so using cock-up in the wrong setting might be a bit of a cock-up in itself.

An RAF pilot sitting in the cockpit of a Supermarine Spitfire
Potty-mouthed WWII pilots makes a fun etymology for cockpit, but it's not true

So Why Does Cock Mean Something Rude?

The history of cocks' interaction with man is a history of abuse and exploitation - we've forced them to fight in bloody cockpits, we've taken an unhealthy pleasure in tossing them, and we've continually questioned the motives of their entire species as they try and cross our thoroughfares. And yes - we've also appropriated their appellation to crudely refer to male genitalia. Why?

Men being men, it seems, found favourable comparison between their members and the male birds - cocks are, after all, masculine, aggressive, upright and libidinous. Bizarrely to our modern ears, cock meaning 'penis' was perfectly acceptable, if colloquial, English in the 1600s. It had been preceded by the bizarrely archaic-sounding pillicock, from which we get the word pillock, which is certainly a mild swearword when compared to its alternatives, but it definitely and unambiguously means 'penis'.

It was only in the Victorian era that cock fell firmly out of favour and into the realm of the taboo. It's easy to understand how this happened - like the nastiest swearwords in English, cock's short, sharp and violent monosyllable has the power to shock when wielded with appropriate venom. In fact, the taboo became such that many opted to use a different word altogether, even when referring to the bird. Thus, rooster gained currency in the English language, particularly with Puritans relocating to the Americas, thus giving those of delicate ears a perfect synonym to cock, but one that crucially sidesteps its awkward genital associations.
A painting of a cock
Do please leave any comments in the box below.
(unless you're chicken)

13 comments:

  1. Am loving the history behind words! Know anything about cockaleekie soup n why it's got that name?!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad you enjoy it, Naomi : o )

      And yes, cockaleekie is in the OED, spelt cock-a-leekie and cocky-leeky (there are some very tempting jokes here, but I did quite well in keeping this post as respectable as the subject allows, so I'm going to display heroic restraint).

      The OED defines it as: "A Scottish soup made with chicken and leeks," and its etymology is similarly straightforward, from 'cock' (male chicken) and 'leek'. It says the word originated in the 1700s, though according to a referenced line in Wikipedia, the first recipe was printed in 1598.

      Delete
    2. Cocky-leeky?

      "Tempting" is not among the words that springs to mind.

      Delete
  2. Pillicock was also a flattering word for a young boy, and used as a term of endearment.
    Cockapert is another good old word for a saucy fellow (from the 1600s I think), but I wouldn't dare call anybody that any more!
    What a shame we butcher words.


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that definition of 'pillicock' is still in the OED (given as obsolete, used between the late 16th and mid-17th century).

      No sign of 'cockapert' in my Shorter OED though - I guess, like you, lots of people decided to give that one a wide berth!

      Delete
  3. Great post, Ed!

    Today's new goal is to use all of these non-crude "cock" words in the next 24 hours. Feeling cocksure, and very much looking forward to a chance to use "cockalorum."

    Thanks for bringing all this joyful etymology into my morning!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pretty sure I can manage that ...

      (unless I go and cock it up, of course)

      Delete
  4. I got cocky-leaky on a visit to China once, but luckily some antibiotics cleared it up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, thank you for that, Dave ...

      (and welcome to Lexicolatry) : o )

      Delete
  5. Beautifully argued post, Ed.
    I wonder if these worries are why it's a faucet in America rather than a stopcock?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. During my research, I read a theory that the evolution of cock was:

      Male chicken ... to ... the tap on a barrel (on account of its shape resembling a cock's beak in profile) ... to ... the male member (on account of it looking like a tap on a barrel in profile).

      However, I couldn't find any corroborating evidence, so I didn't put it in, but it was a compelling idea that made me smile childishly.

      Delete
  6. I thought 'cockalorum' was a 'cock' + a learned yet mock Latin genitive plural ending '-alorum' giving it the sense of 'cock of the cocks' on a par with Latin 'sanctum sanctorum' - 'holy of the holies' (inner sanctum) I didn't know about the onomatopoeic kockeloeren from Dutch dialectical (modern Dutch verb 'to crow' koekeloeren.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting. I admit, I took the OED on face value with 'cockalorum', but on looking I see that Collins English Dictionary says exactly what you just said, though Merriam-Webster goes with the Dutch idea. However, Collins still says that the 'cock' being referred to is the bird, so presumably it would be suggesting that a self-important man is acting as if he is 'the cock of all cocks', as in the 'king of kings', etc. I like this!

      Delete