Crook

The buck stops in their pockets.

Dear Word Detective:  I live in Cook County, IL, where a synonym for politician is “crook” in all too many instances. “Crook” apparently has a few meanings, but when and why did it ever come to mean “criminal” or “thief”? Do the terms “straight and narrow” and “bent” spring from the same source? Please shed some light on this. — Bill Lundeberg.

But if I shed light on politicians, won’t they all just run behind the stove?  Anyway, while Cook County may be a bit above average in the “elected crook” tally, the rest of the US is, from all indications, not far behind.  I actually have a theory about this.  Since politicians are so widely reviled (twenty points below puppy-kickers, last I checked), the only positive reinforcement the poor creatures get is from real-estate developers and defense contractors itching to fill their pockets with bribes.  It’s a sad cycle of abuse, and the solution is obvious:  ignore politicians who promise to be honest and elect only people who are already in jail, where we’ll be able to keep an eye on them.

“Crook” does indeed have many meanings,which isn’t surprising since it first appeared in English way back in the 13th century, derived from the Old Norse word “krokr,” meaning “hook.”  The initial meaning of the English “crook” was “hooked tool or weapon” (still found in the “crook,” or hooked staff, traditionally carried by shepherds), and “crook” was soon applied to nearly anything bent sharply in the approximate shape of a hook.  But “crook” was also used, almost as soon as it first appeared, to mean things “morally bent or twisted,” including, by the 19th century, a dishonest person. This “crook” also gave us, of course, the adjective “crooked” meaning “characterized by dishonesty.”  Incidentally, when students “play hookey” and skip school,  the “hookey” comes from the related 19th century slang term “hookey-crooky,” meaning “dishonest.”

“Bent” in the slang sense of “dishonest” is, as you suspected, simply an alternative and arguably more diplomatic way to say “crooked” (“What made the witness think the two officers were offering a bribe? Mitchell replied, ‘I had known for years that certain members of the Brighton police force were what we call bent,’” Times (London), 1958).

“Straight and narrow,” meaning “a path of moral and law-abiding behavior,” also takes its meaning from the contrast with such terms as “crooked.”  The phrase is often “corrected” by purists to “strait and narrow,” referring back to the apparent source of the idiom in the Bible (“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,”  Matthew, Chapter 7, Verse 14).  But in the Bible text both “strait” and “narrow” mean the same thing (“narrow or constricted”), while in popular use “straight and narrow” vividly suggests a path both “straight” (direct and not “crooked”) and “narrow” (not wavering), which conveys a better sense of zipping through life on the expressway of moral rectitude.  Both forms appeared in English in the mid-19th century, so it’s really not possible to argue that one is “more correct” than the other.

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