The Grammarphobia Blog

All corned up

Q: A caller asked Pat on WNYC about the origin of “all corned up,” a phrase her grandmother used to mean angry. Having grown up with horses in England and Scotland, I think this is an equine reference.  We would feed grain (“corn” in Britain) to to give horses more nutrition than hay. The more corn you fed, the more lively a horse would be! And sometimes headstrong and difficult to control.

A: Although the expression “all corned up” has sometimes been used to describe a headstrong horse, it has more often been applied to a liquored-up human being.

And the origin of the phrase appears to be human, not equine.

The use of the verb “corn” in the sense of feeding grain to a horse originated in the mid-18th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, none of the OED citations use “corned,” “corned up,” or “all corned up” in reference to a frisky or unruly horse. But we found several such examples elsewhere.

The earliest example we found of the equine “all corned up” is from The Well of Loneliness, a 1928 novel by Radclyffe Hall in which a horse is described as “all corned up until ’e’s fair dancin’!”

On the other hand, the OED has published references dating from the late 1700s of the adjective “corned” used to describe an intoxicated person.

For example, here’s a brief entry in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) by Francis Grose: “Corned, drunk.”

And John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825) gives this example: “Thae lads are weel corned.”

This sense of “corned” may have been influenced by the much earlier use of the adjective “corny” to mean “tasting strong of the corn or malt,” as in these two 1386 examples from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales:

From the Pardoner’s Preamble: “A draughte of moyste and corny ale.”

From the Pardoner’s Tale: “Now haue I dronke a draughte of corny ale.”

The earliest example we’ve found for “all corned up” used to describe a soused human being is from a 1923 article in the Montgomery  Advertiser.

The article, cited by another Alabama newspaper, apparently refers to an incident in the comic strip “Bringing Up Father” in which Maggie and Jiggs fall on hard times:

“Those Americans who for a dozen years or more have secretly cherished the wish that Jiggs would come home all corned up some night and whip Maggie are having their revenge on the old girl even though she has not yet been paddled.”

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