By hook or by crook
Posted: 28 May 2016 04:58 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Anatoly Liberman has a post on the phrase “by hook or by crook”; I can’t stand his style, which is to go on and on about false etymologies before finally getting to the true one, so as a public service I present the only bit worth taking up your brain cells with:

The most probable origin of our idiom was discovered as far back as 1850 (such at least is my earliest reference). Medieval conveyancers (that is, lawyers who specialized in the legal aspects of buying and selling property) had to give grant of dead wood for fuel, over a tract of woodland, which might be available without interfering with the more substantial use and profits of the timber for the general purposes of the landowner. The use of axes, bills, or saws was not allowed, while hooked poles, or crooks, by which dry or dead bits of wood could be detached and pulled down from the upper branches of the tree were fine.

A few citations in the OED show that hook and crook were at one time interchangeable synonyms. It follows that by hook or by crook is a tautological binomial of the type safe and sound, except that the basis of safe and sound is alliteration, while by hook or by crook depends on rhyme. The OED prefers not to commit itself to any hypothesis of origins; it only indicates that some conjectures are at variance with chronology, and indeed we have seen examples of this flaw above. In the present case, reference to forest customs makes sense. In the Middle Ages, the phrase was a legal formula (such mnemonic devices as rhyme and alliteration are common in the oldest laws of all Germanic-speaking nations, for, in the past, laws had to be reproduced from memory). Later it acquired a “mundane” sense, namely “by all available means,” and this is the reason we are no longer aware of its origin.

There doesn’t seem to be a Big List entry for the phrase, so I suggest it be added; it’s an interesting history.

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Posted: 28 May 2016 10:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Medieval conveyancers (that is, lawyers who specialized in the legal aspects of buying and selling property) had to give grant of dead wood for fuel, over a tract of woodland, which might be available without interfering with the more substantial use and profits of the timber for the general purposes of the landowner. The use of axes, bills, or saws was not allowed, while hooked poles, or crooks, by which dry or dead bits of wood could be detached and pulled down from the upper branches of the tree were fine.

I know nothing of mediaeval conveyancing. But on the assumption that this is true, how is it that we have all this detail about what was and was not allowed, but no example of the idiom itself? What’s the source of this? Also, I’d have thought it was more a matter of landlord/tenant law, but that may be a minor detail.

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Posted: 28 May 2016 11:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Well, here are the OED citations:

by hook or (also and) by crook, †with hook or crook.: by all or any means, fair or foul; by one device or another. Usually implying difficulty in attaining the thing sought, which may necessitate the use of special or extraordinary means.
As to the origin of the phrase there is no evidence; although invention has been prolific of explanatory stories, most of them at variance with chronology. The Wycliffite quots. are of somewhat doubtful date, and may be later than that from Gower, which has hepe n.  (q.v.) for ‘hook’.

c1380 Wyclif Wks. (1880) 250 Þei schulle bie hem wiþ pore mennus goodis wiþ hook or wiþ crok.
c1383 Wyclif Sel. Wks. III. 331 Þei sillen sacramentis..and compellen men to bie alle þis wiþ hok or crok.
[1390 J. Gower Confessio Amantis II. 223 What with hepe and what with croke They [false Witness and Perjury] make her maister ofte winne.]
a1529 J. Skelton Colyn Cloute (?1545) sig. D.vv, Nor wyll suffre this boke By hoke ne by croke Prynted for to be.
1551 R. Robinson tr. T. More Vtopia sig. Cviiv, By one meanes therfore or by other, other by howke or crooke they must nedes departe awaye.
1561 Schole-ho. Wom. 847 in W. C. Hazlitt Remains Early Pop. Poetry Eng. IV. 138 So at length, by huch or by cruch, Lesse or more, euer they craue, Until thy hand be in thy pouch.
1621 R. Burton Anat. Melancholy i. ii. iii. xv. 179 Some..care not how they come by it, per fas & nefas, hooke or crooke, so they haue it.
1651 N. Bacon Contin. Hist. Disc. Govt. 116 Title enough for a great man that resolved to hold by hooke, what he had got by crooke.
a1777 S. Foote Trip to Calais (1778) ii. 35 If you could put us in a way, by hook or by crook, to get her out of the convent.
1834 F. Marryat Peter Simple III. xiv. 186 If you can’t gain it by hook, you must by crook.
1842 ‘G. Eliot’ in Life (1885) I. 112 Do come by hook or by crook.

I don’t agree with Liberman’s assertion that these show hook and crook to be ‘interchangeable synonyms’.  I think it just as if not more likely that they were words for different farm implements - e.g. the short bill-hook, with which you can cut small wood as well as hoick it down, and a staff with one curved end, such as the shepherd’s crook, with which you can pull but not cut.

I’d have thought it was more a matter of landlord/tenant law

I agree; also manorial custom, and forest law. Forests in medieval England belonged to the king and were protected by a special set of laws, laying down in great detail what was permitted to the people who lived in or on the periphery of the forest, and what was forbidden. Anyone’s right to take wood from a forest was very carefully defined and limited. (It could still be a hot potato in the last quarter of the 19th century - the village of Loughton in Essex has a handsome village hall, the Lopping Hall, built in 1884 to compensate them for the loss of their right to lop firewood from Epping Forest, which had been hotly disputed for a quarter of a century.)

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Posted: 29 May 2016 02:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Several of the later OED cites appear to me to suggest that by their time, “by crook” was being used metaphorically to mean “by dishonest or underhand means”

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Posted: 29 May 2016 05:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I’m stunned by Liberman’s lack of evidence here. He doesn’t provide a single citation of the phrase or even the individual words hook or crook being used in a medieval legal or forestry context. He doesn’t even give a citation for his 1850 source, which might provide such evidence.

And apparently he didn’t look the phrase up in the Middle English Dictionary, for if he had he would have found this earliest citation found in Bodleian Library Digby 86, which was copied 1272–82. It’s not in the rhyming form we’re familiar with, but it uses both words:

?a1300 Sayings St.Bern.(Dgb 86) 761/117:  Þou be war of his [the Devil’s] hok! Do nou also ich haue þe seid, And alle þre sulen ben aleid Wiþ here owene crok.

The Sayings of St. Bernard is a collection of proverbs attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. At least I think that’s who they’re attributed to (there were several saints with that name and it’s been a few years since I worked with this manuscript, so I don’t recall clearly), but it really doesn’t matter as the proverbs are apocryphal anyway.

Medieval imagery commonly put hooks and crooks in the hands of demons, and the word hook was even used to refer to Satan’s claws. The earliest citations of the phrase are all in ecclesiastical contexts, referring to priests and the sacraments. This leads me to conclude that the most likely explanation is that the phrase sprung from this religious context. To get something by hook or by crook was to act deviously, like Satan.

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Posted: 29 May 2016 05:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Excellent, and now you really do need to add it to the Big List.

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Posted: 31 May 2016 06:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Dave Wilton - 29 May 2016 05:01 AM

Medieval imagery commonly put hooks and crooks in the hands of demons, and the word hook was even used to refer to Satan’s claws. The earliest citations of the phrase are all in ecclesiastical contexts, referring to priests and the sacraments. This leads me to conclude that the most likely explanation is that the phrase sprung from this religious context. To get something by hook or by crook was to act deviously, like Satan.

The 12th century icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, from St. John Climacus’ treatise by the same name.  I think there may be a couple of hooks and/or crooks in there, as well as the “slings and arrows” so often heard in the Psalms.

240px-The_Ladder_of_Divine_Ascent_Monastery_of_St_Catherine_Sinai_12th_century.jpg

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Posted: 31 May 2016 08:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I’m not sure there are any in there, but the resolution isn’t the greatest. But such images are ridiculously easy to find; just do a Google image search on devil hook medieval and they pop right up.

Here’s one from Bodleian MS Douce 134, a fifteenth-century manuscript:

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Posted: 31 May 2016 09:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I think the Douce devils are holding flesh-hooks, designed to snag and pull large lumps of meat out of a cauldron. That’s a logical tool for devils to use when sauteing the souls of the damned in boiling oil and so on.

The flesh-hook was the distinctive tool of the medieval cook’s trade: the early 15th-century Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales depicts Chaucer’s Cook carrying one while riding to Canterbury.

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Posted: 04 June 2016 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I’ve done the Big List entry.

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Posted: 05 June 2016 05:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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And done it very well!  If I were copyediting it, I would change “sometime between 1272–82” to “sometime between 1272 and 1282” or “sometime in the period 1272–82,” but I have a strong personal prejudice against the usage of “from” or “between” with dates separated by an en dash, and I realize that my prejudice is far from universally shared.

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Posted: 05 June 2016 10:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Yes, a very educational and satisfying explanation. Thanks.

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Posted: 12 June 2016 12:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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A reader emailed me with some evidence of by hook or by hook being used in a forestry context. From a fragment of a petition from the town of Bodwin to Henry VIII, written some time between 1529 and 1539:

Where the said inhabitants have used to have common pasture, with all manner of beasts, and common fuel, in a wood called Dynmure Wood, a mile from the said town, that is to say, with hook and crook to lop and crop and to carry away, upon their backs, and none other ways, the same Prior hath not only within this 15th year caused the said wood to be inclosed, and gates locked, so that the said Inhabitants have much labour and pain going to and from the said wood, to fetch their foresaid fuel, and thereby utterly excluded from their said common and pasture.

The fragment is published in The Bodmin Register, Bodmin: Liddell and Son, 1838, 306–07. It’s available on Google Books.

While the use is noteworthy, it’s not conclusive. First, the appearance of the phrase here is some 150 years after the earliest known use of the phrase, and some 250 years after the use of hook and crook The Sayings of St. Bernard. So it’s not good evidence of the origin of the phrase. Second, this published version is clearly edited and modernized. Without looking at the manuscript, it’s impossible to tell what interventions the 19th century editors made, but the published version does not give any identifying information as to where this manuscript might be found. It’s intriguing, but somewhat suspect until the original, or at least a good transcription, can be found.

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Posted: 13 June 2016 11:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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This thread has reminded me that I once had a school-friend called Peter Crook .

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