‘to make a spoon or spoil a horn’: meaning and origin

The Scottish phrase to make a spoon or spoil a horn means: to make a determined effort to achieve something, whether ending in success or failure.

This phrase refers to the making of spoons out of the horns of cattle or sheep, which was common in Scotland till late in the 19th century.

The following definition, quotation and comment are from Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (Edinburgh: Printed at the University Press for W. & C. Tait […], 1825), by the Scottish lexicographer John Jamieson (1759-1838):

SPUNE, s. A spoon, S.
“He’ll either mak a spune, or spoil a horn,” a S. Prov. applied to an enterprising person, to intimate that he will either have a signal measure of success, or completely ruin himself.
“Mr. Osbaldistone is a good honest gentleman; but I aye said he was ane o’ them wad make a spune or spoil a horn.” Rob Roy, ii. 195. 1
A phrase borrowed from the honourable profession of the horners or tinkers.

1 Cf. occurrence 3 below.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase to make a spoon or spoil a horn that I have found:

1-: From Highland Donald. A Tale, by ‘O. L. O.’, published in The Gleaner; consisting of pieces moral, literary, and humorous, extracted from publications of merit; together with original essays and poems (Glasgow: Printed by Duncan Mackenzie, for William Maver […], 1806):

On sic wild barren heighs an’ howes,
Where grain for food but scanty grows,
His fam’ly was but sparely fed,
Right coarse an’ barely were they clad;
Yet he was wi’ his lot content,
Except when pincht to pay his rent;
Indeed, he wi’ the laird for years
Had, ’gainst his will, been in arrears;
For which he had to thole the snarle,
An’ threats o’ the tyrannic earle;
Donald’s independent spirit
Nae langer was disposed to bear it,
And hardships had resolv’d to scorn,
To mak’ a spoon, or spoil a horn.

2-: From Town fashions, or modern manners delineated, a satirical dialogue; with James and Mary, a rural tale (Edinburgh: Printed for William Blackwood, 1810), by the Scottish poet Hector Macneill (1746-1818):

Add, if you please, our late new fashion’d Factors.
Our land-surveyors, purchasers, contractors;
Our new found Builders—Feuers—Innovators,
—In short, good Sir, our Legal Speculators.
Pleased with no profits, to no trade confined,
No gainful business satisfies the mind;
Now here—now there, with eagle eye they turn,
Some new wrought mine of riches to discern,
Find some things tempting, joined with some things scaring,
Despise the last, and dash at what is daring,
Plunge in the stream!—all future dangers scorn,
—“’Tis make a spoon,” they cry, “or spoil a horn.”

3-: From Rob Roy, by the Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832), as published in The Anti-Jacobin Review; True Churchman’s Magazine; and Protestant Advocate: Or, Monthly, Political, and Literary Censor (London, England) of January 1818:

“Mr. Osbaldistone is a good honest gentleman; but I aye said he was ane o’ them wad make a spune or spoil a horn, as my father, the worthy deacon, used to say. The deacon used to say to me, ‘Nick—young Nick,’ (his name was Nicol as weel as mine; sae folk ca’d us in their daffin’ young Nick and auld Nick)—‘Nick,’ said he, ‘never put out your arm farther than you can draw it easily back again.’”

4-: From Prologue to the Scots pastoral comedy of “Jamie and Bess,” as spoken at the Theatre-Royal, Edinburgh, 27th August 1796, published in Poems and Songs, by the late Richard Gall (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1819), by the Scottish poet Richard Gall (1776-1801):

Wha could refuse the lassie’s fair demand?
A dowfart might—but Andry 2, ever leal,
In Scotia’s cause had aye a heart to feel.
At ance he wi’ the Muse’s wish complied,
For her dear sake, whate’er might him betide;
Resolved, wi’ Ramsay for his pattern, soon,
That he wad “spoil a horn, or mak a spoon.”

2 The Scottish poet Andrew Shirrefs (1762-1807?) was the author of Jamie and Bess, or the Laird in Disguise, an imitation of The Gentle Shepherd, by the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay (1686-1758).

5-: From the Preface to The Visionary. Nos. I. II. III. (Edinburgh: Printed for William Blackwood […], 1819), a collection of essays that Walter Scott had originally written for the Edinburgh Weekly Journal (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland)—in this Preface, Walter Scott denounced:

The numerous party who swallow the doctrines of Radical Reform and Spencean 3 equality, as a sort of opium pills to quiet their consciences, while their real hopes rest upon a general confusion and uproar, in which they trust to better their condition somehow or other, and are willing, according to our old proverb, “to make a spoon or spoil a horn.”

3 The adjective Spencean means: of, or pertaining to, Thomas Spence or his views. The British political theorist Thomas Spence (1750-1814) advocated the common ownership of land and a democratic equality of the sexes.