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.


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