By Hook Or By Crook

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.

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12 Comments

Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

12 responses to “By Hook Or By Crook

  1. Interesting to know how sayings that we just use without thinking came about.

  2. sarahjaneprosetry

    Another great one. I am so going to press you to do more American phrases!

  3. There was another explanation that I had heard. Though,the full,(read accurate)details escape me, but, I do believe I had read that it involved an invasion. And the Crook or the hook is a river somewhere in the British Isles, I think, and the hook/crook part had something to do with the topography. Hence by hook or by crook was simply by land or by water..Frankly though, I’m liking the peasant explanation myself, as well.

  4. Aha yes I was hoping somebody might say that. I may be wrong, but I believe that you are referring to Hook Head and Crooke, which are on opposite sides of the Waterford channel. Cromwell is reputed to have said that Waterford would fall ‘by Hook or by Crooke’, i.e. by a landing of his army at one of those two places.

    Unfortunately this would have happened in the 1600s and the first use of the phrase dates back to the 1400s, meaning that it sadly cannot have been birthed by Cromwell.

  5. Alegria Imperial

    I would love more of this. Yes, a background of how phrases we now use without a hint at the image gives them a new dimension. I do think the phrase does have do with shepherds and thus goes far back than Cromwell. I’m curious though why ‘crooks’ are known as such. Thanks for this, Edward!

  6. It is a delight to be brought into a more intimate understanding of language and the origins of idioms. Thank you for this smart little post. I love information of this kind, and I will use it in the future 😉

  7. Love this, I favour the feudal custom in Royal woods (oops sorry that conjures up all kinds of strange images) but you know what I mean. Have you come across this? http://blog.inkyfool.com/2011/08/etymologicon.html

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