16 October 2017

Cock and Bull Stories

StonyStratford CockandBull.jpg

Signs for the two inns -- via  Cnyborg/WikimediaCC BY-SA 3.0

A "cock and bull" story is one that is rather unbelievable. The most common origin is that the phrase is connected to two inns in Stony Stratford, England.

Stony Stratford ("the stony ford on the Roman road") was an important stop for coaches in the 18th and early 19th centuries that carried mail and passengers en route to and from London to northern England.

One version of the etymology says that rivalry between groups of travellers resulted in exaggerated and fanciful stories told on those coaches and in the two inns in town which became known as 'cock and bull stories'.

The inns are real (signs for them above). Both were on the coach road (A5 or Watling Street). The Cock Hotel is documented to have existed in one form or another on the current site since at least 1470. The Bull existed at least before 1600.

The second most common origin story is that these stories were another form of folk tales that featured magical animals, such as found in Aesop's fables or The Arabian Nights.

The early 17th century French term coq-a-l'âne ("rooster to jackass") is sometimes mentioned as the origin and that it was imported into English, though I found little evidence for this. However, the Lallans/Scots word "cockalayne" with the same type of meaning does appears to be a direct phonetic transfer from the French.

I wondered if there is any connection to the words poppycock and bullshit.

"Poppycock" appears to be a much more recent mid-19th century Americanism. It might comes from the Dutch pappekak, which literally does mean dung or excrement, whether from a bull or not.

Poppycock tends to be used for pretty lightweight nonsense, while bullshit has the stronger sense of the intention of deceiving or misleading.

"Bullshit," once considered taboo and an expletive, seems more acceptable these days. It is also an Americanism from the early 20th century. It may have a connection to the Middle English word bull.   

The idiom "shoot the bull", meaning to talk aimlessly, was used in 17th century. It came from Medieval Latin bulla meaning to play, game, or jest. You still hear people use the shorter and more acceptable "bull" to mean bullshit, as well as the shorter and even less acceptable "shit" to mean the same thing.


Pseudonyms are names adopted by a person for a particular purpose, which differs from his or her true name. There are so many examples of pseudonyms that I will have to break this topic into several posts in order to cover author "pen names," and those chosen by musicians, social activists, politicians, actor stage names, visual artists, athletes, fashion designers, or criminals.
Even fictional characters that are not real have pseudonyms, for example, almost all superheroes.

Just a few examples from various fields:

The visual artist Caravaggio was born Michelangelo Merisi, while Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret) Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) and Marc Chagall (Moishe Shagal) were all known for their pseudonyms.

Social activists Mahatma Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) and Mother Teresa (Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu), Malcolm X (Malcolm Little), Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones) are best known for their pseudonyms. Israeli leader Golda Meir was originally Golda Meyerson.

Taking activism to another revolutionary level, during the underground fight against the British in Mandatory Palestine, commander Yitzchak Shamir (later Prime Minister of Israel) adopted the nom de guerre "Michael", in honour of Ireland's Michael Collins. Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa was José Doroteo Arango Arámbula. North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was Nguyễn Sinh Cung and Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was originally Ioseb Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili.

During World War II, the German pilot known as The Red Baron was really Manfred von Richthofen, but he was known as The Red Knight, which was the pseudonym created by British journalists for von Richthofen.

09 October 2017

Is it baited or bated breath?

It is not uncommon to hear some use the term "with bated breath." But I have seen the expression written, incorrectly, as "with baited breath."

"Bated" is a form of "abate," which means “to diminish, lessen or reduce.”

If you are "waiting with bated breath for the release of the final episodes of Game of Thrones based on George R.R. Martin's books" then you are so eager, anxious, excited, or frightened that you're almost holding your breath.

Though you may hear abated used more frequently - "The storm finally abated overnight" - I can't think of any time I have heard "bated" used as an adjective other than connected to "breath."

The only way I can imagine "baited breath" would be if you decided you munch on some night crawlers, grubs or insects. That would certainly give you baited breath - and probably abate you chances of being kissed.