the forgotten origin of ‘cock-a-hoop’

MEANING

 

cock-a-hoop: extremely and obviously pleased, especially about an achievement

 

ORIGIN: UNKNOWN

 

This adjective is from the 16th-century phrase to set cock a hoop, to set (the) cock on (the) hoop, which apparently meant to turn on the tap and let the liquor flow prior to a drinking bout. The earliest attestation of this phrase is from A dialoge of comfort against tribulacion (published posthumously in London in 1553), by the English humanist and statesman Thomas More (1478-1535):

They haue founde out so easy a waye to heauen as to take no thoughte, but make mery, nor take no penaunce at all, but syt them downe & drynke well for our sauiours sake, set cocke a hope & fyll in al the cuppes at once & thā [= then] let Christes passion paye for all the shot.

In The comedye of Acolastus (London, 1540), a translation of a play written in Latin by the Dutch humanist religious dramatist Gulielmus Gnapheus (1493-1568), the teacher and scholar of languages John Palsgrave (died 1554) wrote:

We maye make our tryumphe. i. [= i.e.] kepe our gaudyes [= celebrations], or let vs sette the cocke on the hope, and make good chere, within dores.
[…]
I haue good cause to set the cocke on the hope, and make gaudye [luxurious] chere.

In The fyrst boke of the introduction of knowledge (circa 1549), the physician and author Andrew Borde (circa 1490-1549) used the phrase to mean to abandon oneself to carefree enjoyment:

(1870 edition)
I am an English man, and naked I stand here,
Musyng in my mynde what rayment I shal were [= wear];
For now I wyll were thys, and now I wyl were that;
Now I wyl were I cannot tel what.
All new fashyons be pleasaunt to me;
I wyl haue them, whether I thryue or thee.
Now I am a frysker [= frolicker], all men doth on me looke;
What should I do, but set cocke on the hoope?
What do I care, yf all the worlde me fayle?
I wyll get a garment, shal reche [= reach] to my tayle.

The first explanation of the phrase was given by the English lexicographer Thomas Blount (1618-79) in Glossographia: or a dictionary interpreting the hard words of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue; with etymologies, definitions, and historical observations on the same (3rd edition – London, 1670):

Cock-on-hoop; 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. [= i.e.] at the height of mirth and jollity; a saying still reteined [sic].

This explanation fits the 16th-century use of the phrase but seems to be a later rationalisation rather than a statement of historical facts, as there is no evidence that cock was used in the sense of spigot at that time, and even if it were, why the place on which to lay the cock should have been the hoop of the cask remains unclear.

(Since the late 15th century, the word cock has been used to denote a short spout for the emission of fluid, and a nozzle or mouthpiece, but apparently not, in early use, to denote a tap or ‘stop-cock’. Select Transactions of the Honourable the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1743) shows a later use: “Let go that Water by the means of a Spigget and Fosset, or Cock and Pail, as we call it in Scotland”.)

The occurrence of hoop and of figures on the Hoop in tavern-signs from the reign of Edward III (1327-77) might point to some earlier allusion. In The History of Signboards, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (3rd edition – London, 1866), Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten explained:

Anciently, instead of being a painted board, the object of the sign was carved and hung within a hoop, hence (as we had occasion to remark on a former page*nearly all the ancient signs are called the “—— on the hoop.” In the Clause Roll, 43 Edward III., we find the George on the Hoop; 26 Henry VI., the Hart on the Hoop; 30 Henry VI., the Swan, the Cock, and the Hen on the Hoop. Besides these we find mentioned the Crown on the Hoop, the Bunch of Grapes on the Hoop, the Mitre on the Hoop, the Angel on the Hoop, the Falcon on the Hoop, &c. In 1795, two of these signs were still extant, for a periodical of the time says:—“A sign of this nature is still preserved in Newport Street, and is a carved representation of a Bunch of Grapes within a Hoop. The Cock on the Hoop may be seen also in Holborn, painted on a board, to which, perhaps, it was transferred on the removal of the sign-posts.”
(* The Falcon on the Hoop is named in 1443. “In the xxj yer of Kyng Harry the vjte,” the brotherhood of the Holy Trinity received “for the rent of ij yere of Wyllym Wylkyns for the Sarrecyn Head v li. vj s. viij d., paynge by the yer liij s. iiij d., and of the Faucon on the Hope, for the same ij yer vi li., that is to say paynge by the yer iij li.” Rent, it must be confessed, seems small, and landlords exceedingly accommodating in those days. Six days before that period, there is an entry in the church-wardens’ accounts for “kervyng and peinting of the seigne of the Faucon vi sh.” This mention of the sign clearly shows that it was not a picture, but a carved and coloured falcon, suspended in a hoop, whence the name of the sign.)

However, it is difficult to see how the Cock on the Hoop as a sign should have given rise to the phrase as originally used, more than any of the other devices similarly found on the Hoop. It is still more difficult to imagine how this cock could be set on the hoop in connection with a drinking session.

Since the 17th century, cock has been generally identified with the fowl, and hoop sometimes explained as being from French huppe, meaning tufted crest. In The New World of Words, or, A General English Dictionary (4th edition – London, 1678), Edward Phillips (1630-1696?) introduced this etymology as a possible alternative to the origin given by Thomas Blount:

Cock-a-hoop (Fr. 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). All upon the Spur, high in mirth, or standing upon high terms.

The fancied origins have led to changes both in the grammatical construction and use of the phrase, as can be seen in the following from Dictionarium Britannicum: Or a more Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary than any Extant (London, 1730), by Nathan Bailey (died 1742):

Cock a hoop [coque-a-hupe, F. i.e. a cock with a cope-crest or comb] standing upon high terms all upon the spur.
Cock on hoop [i.e. the cock or spiggot being laid upon the hoop, and the barrel of ale stunn’d, i.e. drank out without intermission] at the height of mirth and jollity.

In A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), B. A. Phythian mentioned the following, also suggested by Collins Dictionary:

An alternative explanation […] is that the cock is the bird and hoop an old word for a measure of grain; the whole expression therefore means that the cock—proverbially exultant and cocksure—is happy at being fed.

Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-91) gave yet a different origin in A Dictionary of English Etymology (London, 1865):

Cockahoop. Elated in spirits. 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.

In Manners, Customs, and Observances: Their Origin and Significance (London, 1894), Leopold Wagner explained what cock-throwing consisted in:

Shrove Tuesday was formerly a great day for English schoolboys. In view of the fasts and vigils to be observed during Lent, they expected to have one day of unrestrained liberty. This day was generally begun by locking the master out of school. If they admitted him at all it was only under a promise that he would participate in the Shrovetide sports. As Cock-fighting was the recognised sport of the day, they then produced their gamecocks. The school was turned for the nonce into a cockpit, the master was appointed director, and great was the glee of the youngsters at seeing the birds fight. Another sport peculiar to the day was Cock-throwing. This consisted in imprisoning a cock in an earthen vessel so that its head and tail were exposed, the game being to break the vessel with a well-aimed cudgel from a few yards’ distance. If the bird was struck on the head it was, of course, killed. A penny was payable to the master by each boy; this payment was styled “Cock-penny.” Sometimes the bird was merely tied by one of its legs to a stake and literally beaten to death. Cock-throwing originated among the ancients, who regarded the cock as the emblem of impiety and parricide. Both the Greeks and Romans were addicted to carrying out capital sentences upon animals for the sake of example. When a parricide was put to death for his crime, a cock was generally sewn up in a sack with him. The cock-throwing at Shrovetide, then, was intended to inculcate a horror of parricide among schoolboys, but whether it had the desired effect is questionable.

The Four Stages of Cruelty: First Stage of Cruelty (1751), by William Hogarth (1697-1764)—image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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