Cock-a-Hoop

Dear Word Detective: I came across “cock-a-hoop” while reading an article by a British sportsman. I’d appreciate hearing the history behind this combination of words and its use and meaning. – Jayesh.

Thanks for a great question. This reminds me of those “Antiques Roadshow” or “Cash from Trash” TV shows where people invite antique appraisers to take a gander at that weird dusty old thing Aunt Milly always claimed was worth pots of money. Sometimes it is, often it isn’t, but the interesting part is always the explanation of the gizmo (“This was found in every colonial household, usually placed in the doorway to frighten away wolverines.”).

“Cock-a-hoop” is a very old English phrase, dating back to the early 16th century, with two meanings as an adjective in common usage today: “being in a state of elation or boastful high spirits,” and “being askew or crooked.” But the original meaning of “cock-a-hoop” as a verb was a bit livelier – “to drink without restraint; to celebrate drunkenly.” The modern meanings seem easily explained – obviously, drinking without restraint can lead to both high spirits and finding oneself “askew.” Searching for the origin of, and logic behind, “cock-a-hoop” is where the real fun begins. The Oxford English Dictionary, in an unusually long speculation on the etymology of the phrase, calls it: “A phrase of doubtful origin, the history of which has been further obscured by subsequent attempts … to analyze it.”

In other words, people have been proposing theories about “cock-a-hoop” for so long that the trail may have been hopelessly muddied. Probably the most popular theory is that the “cock” of the phrase is the spigot on a keg of ale or liquor (“cock” being a term for “spigot” since the 15th century, possibly referring to the resemblance of a spigot and tap to the head of a rooster). To “cock-a-hoop,” in this theory, originally meant to remove the spigot and place it atop the keg (“on the hoop”), allowing celebrants to drink directly, and without restraint, from the barrel. One of the problems with this theory is that names of pubs featuring other things “on the hoop” (“Falcon on the Hoop,” “Angel on the Hoop,” etc.) were common in England during that period.

Another theory, a bit more plausible to me, suggests that “cock-a-hoop” is simply a transliteration of the French phrase “coq a huppe,” meaning a rooster displaying its crest (“huppe”) in a pose of proud defiance. Thus, “cock-a-hoop” would simply liken a drunken man to a boastful and aggressive rooster. If true, this theory would explain all those other “on the hoop” tavern signs as simply imitations of the original confusion of the French “huppe” with the English “hoop.”

7 comments on this post.
  1. Shawnta:

    just came across. Nice blog

  2. ben:

    you win the internet

  3. Sue:

    I am an Australian an used this expression in a missive to an American friend who wondered what it meant. I replied, ‘over the moon’or ‘jumping for joy’. I was going to say ‘happy as a pig in shit’ but figure there was no need to go to extremes. Found your site and have made it a favourite. As some one who was raised with a lot of what my mum calls ‘a lot of lingo’, I tend to use that lingo in my daily language and writings, with no thought to the true meaning, just an understanding of what it expresses.
    Thank you

  4. Bryant Bonacci:

    Happy Christmas. Let all of your wishes could come real for you as well as your household and lets expect the next year possibly be successful for everyone all of us. Merry Christmas

  5. Paul:

    A corruption of cock of the coop?

  6. Richard:

    Spigot is not in common use in British English, although I think most people this side of the pond know what is meant. Where we use “cock” to mean “spigot” or “tap”(UK) is for the “stop-cock” which shuts off the mains water supply to a building for maintenance etc. Maybe somebody with experience of cooperage will know the correct terminology for a barrel end, (“head” as in drum head?). If it is “hoop”, then your first explanation would be likely. However, “hoop” is used for the iron bands that keep the barrel staves together.

  7. Jnina:

    I am reading some of Betty Neels romance novels. I have read bunches of books.I think that just her odd words etc. is making take longer to read the book.. She used the words cock a hoop, pertaining to a lady drinking…or rather to her state of mind after drinking…I guess if you can have a toad in the hole for supper… well anyway… I’m glad the me computer is next to me…I will go back and read more…I’m not good at typing so please excuse my ratty message…I shall return..i’m sure

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