hook or by crook

The phrase by hook or by crook means by any means, fair or foul. Its origin, however, is not known. Over the years it has accumulated a number of alleged etymologies, most of which can be readily dismissed as implausible, if not downright impossible. There is one, however, that seems more likely than the others. But before we start examining the different etymological possibilities, it would be a good idea to establish what the facts are and what evidence of the phrase’s early use is available.

The earliest known use of the words hook and crook in close proximity can be found in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86, in a text rubricated as Les Diz de Seint Bernard (The Sayings of Saint Bernard). The manuscript was compiled sometime between 1272 and 1282. The relevant passage describes humanity’s three foes: the flesh, the world, and the fiend—i.e., Satan. Of this last foe, it says:

He wolde hauen þin herte blod;
Þou be war of his hok!
Do nou also ich haue þe seid,
And alle þre sulen ben aleid
Wiþ here owene crok.

(He would have your heart’s blood;
Beware of his hook!
Do now as I have told you,
And all three should be vanquished
With their own crook.)

The connection to Satan is strengthened when we look at the words individually. Hook was used in the fifteenth century to refer to Satan’s claws, and demons were commonly depicted in medieval illustrations as carrying meat hooks for use in roasting bodies in hell. Crook was similarly used for Satan’s hook or clutches, as well as for tricks or deceptions by Satan and others since the end of the twelfth century. The Ormulum manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 1), copied c. 1200, has:

Þa wære he þurrh þe deofless croc I gluterrnesse fallenn.

(That it was through the devil’s crook I fell into gluttony.)

Of course, these individual uses and the hooks and crooks in The Sayings of Saint Bernard aren’t arranged in the phrase that’s familiar to us today. That would come about a hundred years later in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library, MS 296, a collection of Lollard tracts once ascribed to John Wyclif, but now known to be by a number of authors. The manuscript was compiled after 1383, but the individual texts were composed earlier.

The first tract in this manuscript to use the phrase is The Great Sentence of the Curse Expounded:

and þei sillen sacramentis [...] compellen men to bie alle þis wiþ hok or crok

(and they the blessed sacraments [...] compel men to buy all these with hook or crook)

The second tract in the manuscript that uses the phrase is Why Poor Priests Have No Benefice:

& ȝif þei schullen haue ony heiȝe sacramentis or poyntis of þe heiȝe prelatis, comynly þei schulle bie hem wiþ pore mennus goodis wiþ hook or wiþ crok

(and if they should have any high sacraments or undertakings from the high prelates, commonly they should buy them with poor men’s possessions with hook or with crook)

Both of these texts use the phrase in the context of buying ecclesiastical services and favors.

So we have both hooks and crooks associated with Satan and the earliest appearances of the phrase by hook or by crook used in the context of the corruption of the clergy. The available evidence indicates that the phrase is a reduplication that originally referenced the powers, strategies, and deceptions of Satan and those whom he corrupted. While we can’t say for certain this is the origin, this explanation is reasonable and fits the available evidence rather well.

As for other explanations that have been proffered, none have strong (or any, really) evidence to support them.

One explanation that has recently been revived by etymologists Anatoly Liberman and Michael Quinion is that the phrase has its origins in the medieval right of firebote. Peasants were granted the right to collect dead wood from forests, but were not allowed to cut down trees. They would use hooks and crooks to pull down dead branches. It’s a neat explanation that has been floating around since 1850, but the trouble is that no one has presented any examples of the phrase being used in this context. The practice existed, but no one has been able to connect it to the phrase. Liberman and Quinion are careful researchers who are usually correct, but in this case would seem to be extending themselves beyond what the evidence supports.

Other explanations are that it refers to two gentlemen with the names Hook and Crook. Who these gentlemen were varies with the telling, but in all cases they postdate the appearance the phrase. Another explanation is that it refers the English invasion of Ireland and is a reference to the location of the English army’s landing. But again, there are different versions. One places its origin with Cromwell’s 1649 invasion, again a postdating of the phrase’s appearance. Another is the twelfth century Norman invasion of Ireland. That one is chronologically feasible, but again there is no evidence connecting the phrase to the event.


Update, 13 June 2016:

A reader emailed me with some evidence of by hook or by crook 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 in 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 nineteenth-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.


Sources:

Furnivall, F. J., The Minor Poems of the Vernon MS, part II, 1901, 761.

Liberman, Anatoly, “By Hook or by Crook,” OUPblog, 25 May 2016.

Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001, s. v. hok (n.) and crok (n.)

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. hook, n.1 and crook, n. and adj.

Quinion, Michael. “By Hook or by Crook,” World Wide Words, 3 June 2016.

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