The Grammarphobia Blog

Hue and cry

Q: Is the “hue” in the expression “hue and cry” related to the “hue” that refers to color?

A: No, the “hue” in “hue and cry” is a horse of another color.

In Anglo-Saxon times, the noun “hue” (written hiew, hiw, or heow) referred to the shape of something as well as its color, but the shape sense is now considered obsolete.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest examples of those senses of the word are from the Blickling Homilies, a collection of Old English sermons dating from 971. The first color citation refers to “brunes heowes.”

The other “hue”—the one meaning “outcry, shouting, clamour, esp. that raised by a multitude in war or the chase”—showed up in the 1300s, according to the OED. That sense is now obsolete, surviving only in the expression “hue and cry.”

English borrowed the clamorous “hue” from an Old French noun (written hu, hui, huy, or heu) meaning an outcry, a war cry, or a hunting cry. The Old French verb huer meant to hoot, cry, or shout.

The expression “hue and cry,” which came into English by way of the Anglo-Norman hu e cri, was originally a legal phrase that referred to an outcry by a victim, a constable, or others, calling for the pursuit of a felon.

The OED has two questionable citations from the late 1200s for “hue and cry,” but the first definite example is from a chronicle written in the early 1500s by the London merchant Richard Arnold:

Ony persone … that wyll not helpe Constable sergeauntis and other officers … when hue and Crye is made.”

The OED says there’s “some ground to think” the words “hue” and “cry” in the expression originally had two distinct meanings, with “hue” referring to an “inarticulate sound, including that of a horn or trumpet as well as of the voice.”

By the late 1500s, according to the OED, “hue and cry” was being used more widely to mean “a clamour or shout of pursuit or assault; a cry of alarm or opposition; outcry.”

The first example of this looser usage in the dictionary is from a 1584 English translation of a history of Wales by the cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan: “Set vpon them with great hew and crie.” 

In case you’re curious about the idiom at the beginning of this post, we discussed “a horse of another color” on the blog in 2012.

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