The Grammarphobia Blog

A cock and bull story

Q: Why is a ridiculous tale called “a cock and bull story”? Was there indeed such a story and did it give rise to the expression?

A: The expression is believed to be derived from an old animal fable, but etymologists have yet to find a story about a cock and a bull that might have inspired it.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the expression as in “its origin apparently referring to some story or fable,” and notes that the “early use of the phrase is parallel to that of the French coq-à-l’âne.”

The French phrase ultimately comes from a 14th-century Middle French expression, sallir du coq en l’asne—literally “to go from the cock to the ass” but figuratively “to jump from one subject to another.” In modern French, the expression is sauter du coq à l’âne.

The earliest example we’ve found is from Respit de la Mort, a 1376 poem in which the French author Jean le Fèvre de Ressons uses it in the sense of going off in different directions:

“Tant ay saillii du coq en l’asne / Et ay divers chemins tenu / Que je suis jusquez chy venu” (“So often I’ve gone from the cock to the ass, and taken such diverse paths, until this is what I’ve come to.”)

The 19th-century lexicographer Émile Littré, in his Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, cites a Middle French example from Le Loyer des Folles Amours, believed written in the late 1400s or early 1500s by the French poet Guillaume Crétin:

“De moi vraiment / Vous vous raillez ; / Trop vous faillez, / Car vous saillez / Du coq en l’asne” (“I really think you’re laughing at yourself. You’re jumping from the cock to the ass”).

Littré notes a theory that the expression may have come from the original fable that inspired The Town Musicians of Bremen, an 1819 Brothers Grimm tale about four animals, including a rooster and a donkey. In English, he says, the donkey became a bull.

However, Littré points out that the Grimm rooster and donkey “produce a terrible confusion” that thwarts a robbery, while the French cock and ass signify jumping “from one subject to another.”

In the 16th century, the French poet Clément Marot sent two rambling letters, or epistles, in verse to his friend Lyon Jamet. They were published as the first Epistre du Coq en l’Asne in 1531 and the second 1539.

The French phrase entered Scottish English in the early 17th century as “cockalan,” meaning “a comic or ludicrous representation,” according to An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), by John Jamieson.

The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a 1605 entry in the records of Ayr, Scotland, that requires anyone who finds, hears, or sees a rhyme or a cockalan to notify the authorities privately and tell no one else about it:

“In case ony persoun or persouns at ony time sail find, heir or see ony ryme or cokalane, that they sail reveil the same first to ane eldar privatlie, and to na uther.”

The usage soon evolved to mean “a disconnected story, discourse, etc.,” similar to the meaning of coq-à-l’âne in French. The first OED citation for the new sense is from a Jan. 17, 1627, letter by Sir John Wishard:

“Excuse the rather cockaland then Letter from him who carethe not howe disformall his penn’s expression be.”

Meanwhile, the phrase “cock and bull” showed up, first in the expression “to talk of a cock and bull,” which Oxford defines as to tell “a long rambling, idle story.”

The first OED example is from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “Some mens only delight is … to talke of a Cock and a Bull ouer a pot.”

The dictionary doesn’t specifically say “cock and bull” comes from coq-à-l’âne, either directly or by way of Scottish English. However, its “cock and bull” entry points readers to the French and Scottish expressions.

In the late 1600s, the phrase “a story of a cock and bull” came to mean a long, rambling, disconnected story, as in this OED example from The Arraignment, Tryal and Condemnation of Stephen Colledge for High-Treason, a 1681 account of the proceedings:

“We call you to that particular of the papers, and you run out in a story of a Cock and a Bull, and I know not what.” (Colledge, a Protestant activist, was convicted of sedition after threatening King Charles II. He was hanged and quartered on Aug. 31, 1681.)

The noun phrase “cock-and-bull story” showed up in the late 1700s, meaning “an idle, concocted, incredible story; a canard,” according to the dictionary.

The first citation is from the March 2, 1795, issue of the Gazette of the United States, a biweekly in Philadelphia: “A long cock-and-a-bull story about the Columbianum [a proposed national college].”

One last note: There’s no etymological evidence to support two cock-and-bull stories about “cock and bull” that are floating around the internet.

The expression is not a corruption of “concocted and bully story,” and it does not come from the gossip of travelers at The Cock and The Bull, two coaching inns in Stony Stratford, England.

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