Q: I’ve read online that the well-off meaning of “well-heeled” comes from cock-fighting. Could this be true?
A: Yes, the use of “well-heeled” to mean well-to-do is indeed derived from the verb “heel” and adjective “heeled” used in reference to a gamecock fitted with sharp artificial spurs.
These terms can be traced to hela, the Anglo-Saxon noun for “heel,” the body part. The Oxford English Dictionary’s oldest example of the noun is from a Latin-Old English prayer:
“[Tege] talos cum tibis et calcibus / helan sconcum helum” (“[Protect] my ankles with shins and heels”). From Glosses to Lorica of Laidcenn. A “lorica,” from the Latin term for body armor, is a prayer to protect each part of the body from evil.
The verb “heel” (meaning to replace the heel of a shoe, stocking, etc.) appeared in the late 16th century:
“Vnwilling to vndertake the cutting out of a Garment, before I can heele a Hose.” From A Health to the Gentlemanly Profession of Seruingmen (1598), by “I. M.,” believed to be the English writer Gervase Markham.
In the early 18th century, the verb “heel” took on the sense of “to provide (a fighting cock) with spurs; to arm (a fighting cock),” according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a book about cock fighting:
“I would let no man Heel a Cock, unless he has first seen him Sparr, and know his way of Striking” (The Royal Pastime of Cock-Fighting, 1709, by Robert Howlett).
The book has several other examples of “heel” used as a verb as well as a few examples of “heeled” and “heel’d” as adjectives. However, the adjectives apparently refer to gamecocks with naturally sharp or dull spurs, not artificial ones.
In discussing the choice of a fighting cock, for instance, the author recommends “a Cock that is hard, Sharp-Heel’d, and handsome shaped.”
We’ve seen several examples from the 1600s for “heeld” or “heel’d” used similarly. But in the following passage, it’s possible that “heelde” may mean artificially spurred:
“The best cock-maisters are of opinion, that a sharpe heeld cocke, though hee be a little false, is much better then the truest cocke which hath a dull heele, and hitteth seldome.” From “Of the Fighting Cocke,” Chapter 19 in Country Contentments, or The Husbandmans Recreations, by Gervase Markham. (The book first appeared in 1611, but our citation is from the fourth edition, 1631.)
The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the artificial sense of “heeled” this way: “of a fighting cock: provided with artificial spurs.” The dictionary’s earliest recorded example is from the 19th century:
“In this inhuman contest, a number of cocks heeled with artificial spurs, are turned down together.” From Clavis Calendaria; or, a Compendious Analysis of the Calendar (1839), by John Brady, an author and Royal Navy victualing clerk.
A couple of decades later, the OED says, “heeled” was used in writing to describe someone “armed with a revolver or other weapon.” The dictionary’s first example, which we’ve expanded, cites Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii (1866):
“In Virginia City, in former times, the insulted party, if he were a true man, would lay his hand gently on his six-shooter and say, ‘Are you heeled?’ ”
And a few years later, Oxford says, “heeled” came to mean “provided or equipped with resources, esp. money; well off, wealthy.” The dictionary’s earliest example has “well-heeled,” though “heeled” is in quotes, suggesting the usage is relatively new:
“Mr. L. L. Northrup is … so well ‘heeled’ that he gives his attention entirely to the banking business” (The Neosho Valley Register, Iola, KS, Sept. 21, 1871).
The latest OED citation is from A House Is Not a Home, the 1953 memoir of the madam Polly Adler (ghost-written by Virginia Faulkner): “I made up my mind to go back in the whorehouse business and this time not to quit until I was really heeled.”
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