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In informal British English, the expression 'cock-up' (c.f. the US English 'fuck-up') is used to indicate an error or problem in a situation.

What is the origin of this expression and its etymology? Does anyone know of its use prior to the 1960s?

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I am getting hats, splints, birds from most years (and graphic porn from 1971) here books.google.com/ngrams/… –  mplungjan Feb 13 '12 at 10:06
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@Kris I don't see why the OP needs to provide a source. It's common knowledge. A quick Google search will confirm it. The answers will supply a source. –  slim Feb 13 '12 at 13:52
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@5arx The Burns quote is not the same semantically. –  slim Feb 13 '12 at 13:54
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@5arx Not here. A public schoolteacher would be severely censured for using such fowl language in the classroom. –  tchrist Feb 13 '12 at 14:13
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The precise form cock-up seems to be relatively recent. The earliest I can find is this one from 1948 –  FumbleFingers Feb 13 '12 at 16:29
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5 Answers

This "blunder" meaning of cock-up has been used before the 1960s, from at least the 1940s in writing.


It can be found in the 1950 Sea slang of the twentieth century: Royal Navy, Merchant Navy, yachtsmen, fishermen, bargemen, canalmen, miscellaneous by Wilfred Granville, which covers the period from 1900 to 1949.

cock-up. A mess-up, a bungled piece of work. A LASH-UP. (Lower-deck.)

lash-up. General confusion caused by a misunderstood order or a bungled job of work. Cf. the Royal Navy's lower-deck term, COCK-UP.


Pierre Clostermann's 1948 Le Grand Cirque is one of the very first post-WWII fighter pilot memoirs:

Hullo Filmstar Leader, sorry old boy, there is a cock-up about the Typhies. Do your best if you can without !


Workers in Stalin's Russia by M. L. Berneri (1944):

The journey of approx. 500 miles took us five days, and has been known to take ten days. As we had to take food for this time we travelled rather like a person moving house. There was a cock-up about transport to take us across the ice to the station


Finally, the term isn't particularly offensive. It's been used scores of times in UK parliament, most recently by Peter Bone:

Last Sunday I attended Indian republic day at the Wellingborough Hindu Association, yet the same week we learn that a £20 billion fighter contract has been lost to, of all people, the French. We now know that the lead bidder was not the British Prime Minister or the British Government, but the Germans. What on earth do they know about cricket and curries? Why was the British Government not leading on that? How did the Secretary of State allow such a cock-up?

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Great answer, many thanks! –  5arx Feb 14 '12 at 12:53
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Cock up Origin:

Cock up is an innocent expression meaning error used by printers and others, including poachers. This latter group could well be the true origin since it is claimed that, if you startle a pheasant that you're stalking, then it will squawk and the noise sounds like cock up.

Alternative: Cocking a flintlock pistol. If not cocked up there was likely to be a disaster when the trigger was pulled.

Alternative: The arrows of traditional English long bows had three feathers. One of these, named the cock feather, had to be positioned away from the line of the bow string, otherwise it would hit the string and affect the flight of the arrow to produce a cock up.

Alternative: When a fermented barrel of wine is ready to be run-off for bottling, a stop-cock is driven into the barrel and a sample is tasted to check for quality. If the wine has turned sour, the cock is twisted upside down showing that the barrel is not to be used.

Alternative: In the ranks of soldiers practicing manoeuvres with their flint-lock (or percussion-cap) rifles, it was not unusual to hear a rifle discharge when it shouldn't have done. Some rifles lacked the trigger guard that is now mandatory, and trigger mechanisms in general were not to be trusted. Subsequently, when the rifles where slammed and jerked from position to position, any recruit who had eagerly cocked their rifle in error, would be likely to inadvertently fire the rifle. The remark would be "well, that was a cock up"... the mistake becoming known as a cock up and giving name to many other accidental happenings.

Alternative: Cock up is a well-known nautical expression. The Cock is the upper foremost corner of a gaff sail rigged sail. The Head is the upper edge and the peak the upper after corner. When fully raised the peak is higher than the cock. When raising the gaff, 2 gangs will operate the halyards both on the cock end and peak end of the gaff. It is most important that they raise the gaff horizontal, otherwise this large piece of timber will slew sideways into the mast (it has a metal ring round the mast to stop it coming away completely) and jams fast and then becomes impossible to either raise or lower. This is most acute if the cock is above the peak hence a cock up. It is quite easily done if the 2 gangs are not paying attention to each other.

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Wow that is comprehensive. And Speeeedy! Many thanks. Don't suppose you have any idea which of these was first recorded? –  5arx Feb 13 '12 at 13:57
    
2 3 and 4 don't seem true/logical; I like 5 best. But in any case, +1 for a comprehensive answer. –  TimLymington Feb 13 '12 at 14:02
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These are all rather fanciful derivations. The word cock has a very broad spread of meaning. Per my answer here, the one that matters in cock-up is more related to the usage in a cocked hat, or when an angler cocks his float. –  FumbleFingers Feb 13 '12 at 16:25
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Or possibly it's related to cock=penis and just an obseccity? –  mgb Feb 13 '12 at 16:53
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Do you have any reliable references for these? Most of them sound like made-up folk etymologies. –  Hugo Feb 14 '12 at 5:44
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One of the (many) dictionary definitions for cock is:

  • Nonsense (British Slang)

So to cock up is to make a cock of something.

Note that the phrase can be used as a verb or, hyphenated, a noun:

He's going to cock up that piece of work.

This project is a complete cock-up.

Also it can be broken up as you'd expect:

Be careful when folding the souffle, or you'll cock the texture up.

You can also say:

You've made a complete cock of that.

Everything about this effort has gone to cock.

... with that same, non-obscene, meaning for cock.

To answer the question fully, we need an early reference to "cock" meaning nonsense. I suspect it is very early.

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The OED has no use of cock-up in this sense before 1948, and even then only in a dictionary of Service slang. But cock in the sense of 'a made-up story or canard' is nineteenth century if not before (it's difficult to be sure whether earlier uses are shortened versions of cock-and-bull or poppycock); and in the sense of brawl (presumably from cockfighting), it's much earlier. It seems to be a recent extension of the word, but only a small change.

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I seem to recall hearing Melvyn Bragg say that cock-up is borrowed from Hindi. However, I have not been able to find any confirmation. There are a few users of South Asian origin on this site so perhaps some confirmation, or denial, will be forthcoming.

There are, or were, plenty of expressions from Hindi current in the days of empire, and for many years thereafter, but some of them appear to have dropped out of use. When I was at school we had to hand over a dinner chit to get fed; in this case the chit was a plastic token. Chit or chitti are clearly Hindi in origin; I hardly ever hear the words these days.

I recently told an employment agent that I had grown out of my suit so I would have to attend the interview in mufti. The agent had to check the meaning of mufti. Perhaps we should bring back compulsory military service to remind people of these Hindi-based words.

Even the word khaki leads to puzzlement sometimes even though it regularly appears on clothes labels. I even saw it in foot-high letters on the front page of the Sun newspaper recently, but perhaps people take no notice of newspapers these days.

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Interesting. I'm of South Asian origin too, I will investigate further and ask older family members about this. Agree re: Hindi/Indian loanwords. The list is a very long one: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Re: newspapers - No one takes much notice of the Sun, that's for sure. –  5arx Jul 2 '12 at 10:16
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protected by tchrist Oct 10 '12 at 20:59

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