Now this is what I’m talking about; a sensible, sturdy phrase fit for the description of men practising manly things. The sort of phrase you hear and think – ‘wait, what?’
Meaning ‘by whatever means necessary – be they fair or foul’, this burst of good old-fashioned British wisdom might owe its origin either to sheep farming or else to wood gathering.
Crooks, as I’m sure you are all aware, are the curved sticks that shepherds use to catch sheep. In as much as hook is a synonym for crook, it is quite possible that the two words were put together to mean something like ‘one way or another’, for no better reason than the rhyming.
If you are dissatisfied with the first account, it is sometimes suggested that ‘by hook or by crook’ derives from the feudal custom in mediaeval England of allowing peasants to take from royal forests whatever deadwood they could pull down with a shepherd’s crook or cut with a reaper’s billhook.
Take your pick. I can’t find enough evidence to make a commitment either way, although I favour the latter account myself.