Taking a turn in “cock” alley

It’s the Year of the Cock. No, no, not that Year of the Cock, when TIME named Donald Trump its 2016 Person of the Year. Today marks Lunar New Year, and for many of its Chinese celebrants, 2017 is the Year of the Rooster – or, if we’re not so prudish, Cock. But what’s all this cockeyed rooster/cock cockamamie about, anyway? 

cock.jpg
Cock-a-diddle-do? Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

As the name for the male domestic fowl, rooster is a relatively young word in English. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in a 1772 entry in the diary of Anna Green Winslow, a Boston schoolgirl whose journaling left intimate glimpses of life during the American Revolution. And rooster appears to be something of an ‘American revolution’ indeed. Writing in 1830, English-Canadian author Catherine Parr Traill commented in her Backwoods of Canada: “The produce of two hens and a cock, or rooster, as the Yankees term that bird.”

Early Americans, it seems, may have been a bit cock-shy, using rooster as euphemism for the vulgar associations of cock. The word may have had some intermediary influences, though: roost-cock appears in the 1600s and rooster had some dialectical currency in Kent, England, the OED notes. And as a word, rooster simply means “the bird that roosts.”

Now, cock, as the name for male chickens, goes all the way back to the Old English cocc, recorded as early as the late 890s. It shares an etymological coop with the Old Norse kokkr and French coq, words that probably imitate the sound of clucking (cf. cuckoo, cock-a-doodle-doo). Come the late 16th century, though, cock was starting to strut with a swearier swagger. Why?

There are several theories. The first, quite simply, is that the head of rooster likes look like a penis, and if you’re a farmer who’s ever had to hold a chicken by its neck, it’s gripped like a penis, too, apparently. 

Indeed, there are many other things in English that probably owe their names to their rooster resemblance, like taps, faucets or spigots, which have be called cocks since the late 15th century. (The German Hahn, meaning and related to “hen,” has also doubled for tap.) Which leads us to a second theory: These cocks pour out various fluids, just as penises pour out…I think you get the idea. (Cock juice and cock snot are two colorful options.)

Both explanations probably had some hand on cock, further reinforced by the bird’s long-running reputation for braggadocio. (Cf. cocky, which first meant “lecherous,” fittingly, and cocksure, which actually devolved from positive to negative connotation). Another term for the “penis,” pillicock and its later variant pillock, may have also influenced cockSince the late 16th century, if not earlier, pillicock has referred to the “penis.” The first element possibly derives from the Scandinavian pill, “penis,” and that same cock. This would make pillicock, then, “penis-penis.” (Two penises? Medically, that’s a condition called diphallia.) A variant of pillicock, pillock, went on as abusive slang for a “fool.” 

However you’re ringing in the Lunar New Year, may the upcoming year be a prosperous one – and as bountiful as cock’s many sweary offspring. Like cock-bawd, cock-block, cock cheese, cockface, cockfest, cock mangercockmunch, cock puke, cock-rot, cocksucker, cock-tease, and cockwomble. And don’t forget cock itself moonlights as many other sexual vulgarisms. I say, go ahead and have a bit of cock over at Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang online.

7 thoughts on “Taking a turn in “cock” alley

  1. zhoen January 28, 2017 / 2:33 pm

    I think you missed an “-en”

    “which have be called”?

    Thanks for this, it really is the Year of the Fire Cock, ain’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • James Slick January 29, 2017 / 10:08 am

      If you have a Fire Cock for more than 4 hours, consult a physician. 😆

      Liked by 2 people

  2. mZim January 28, 2017 / 4:33 pm

    It’s cock-block, not clock-block, right? (A spelling cock-up.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. James Slick January 29, 2017 / 10:05 am

    I remember being a kid (6-7 Y.O.) and seeing a can of vegetables or something and the brand was “Cock O’ the Walk” I dared not explain to my mother what the hell was so damned funny in a grocery store! 😛

    Like

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