I occasionally use the colloquialism "all to cock" to mean "disastrously wrong". I've always thought it a benign phrase, but recently I've wondered whether the use of the word "cock" in this situation is vulgar. Is it? And if it isn't rude, would the 'average' person still consider it so?
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alphadictionary offers as good a definition as any of the meaning of the word cock here...
You also 'cock' a gun with something of this sense, but that's a deliberate move away from 'safe' equilibrium. For OP's idiomatic usage, if it's all [gone] to cock, it's all messed up and gone wrong.
Of course, some people won't realise that's the sense being used, even if the above definition is familiar. So you should treat it as potentially more offensive than the etymology would suggest.
The situation isn't helped by people associating cocked up ("messed up", same origin) with "fucked up", "buggered up", "ballsed up", etc. And in the end, even if you know it wasn't so originally, you might still consider it "bad language" today because of the way other people think they mean it.
LATER Although "cock" doesn't have the longest entry in my Chambers (that honour goes to "see"), it is a very long one. Buried in the bewildering array of meanings is the penis (coarse slang), and in dozens and dozens of idioms the only related ones are cock'sucker and cock'teaser. For all that, even though Obama has said he screwed up, I doubt he'll say he cocked up because that would be even more misunderstood (and it's mainly a British usage anyway).
I find it interesting that one of the usages familiar to me as a boy is to cock a float when fishing, by putting small lead weights on the line below it so the float (usually a quill) would "cock" straight upright in the water. In almost diametrical opposition to the sense we're discussing here. You have to admit the Brits spread their cocks around the semantic landscape.
In the United States, cock is considered vulgar in almost every context, except possibly in situations with people you are very close friends with. I have never heard the phrase all to cock used, but I'm not sure if that has to do with its vulgarity or just the arbitrary nature of dialectual phrase adoption.
Below are some more common American alternatives to the phrase, all meaning disastrously wrong:
I've tried to arrange the above in order of most to least vulgar, but that in itself is debatable, and I would consider all of them to be less vulgar than all to cock.
The word cock is even allowed on television – James May loves it! It is all well even according to the dictionary:
As you can see, the third meaning is just informal (at least amongst the British), not vulgar.
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