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?

  • 3
    This is entirely subjective to whom you say it to. I personally don't find it offensive. But others would. Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 20:56
  • I, too, don't find it offensive @OghmaOsiris - I also don't find the term "cocksure" offensive although it has a vulgar connotation as well.
    – Rachel
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 21:16
  • @Rachel: It's not exactly what I want to say, but approximately I'm cock-a-hoop that you're not offended (nor should you be! :) Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 21:34
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    @Rachel: What about a "cock and bull" story?
    – user10893
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 2:22
  • @FumbleFingers touche! I think I would be pretty hard-pressed to find offense in using the word "cock" in any type of slang - even it's most common form. I've been known to throw around some profane words from time to time. ;)
    – Rachel
    Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 3:54

3 Answers 3


alphadictionary offers as good a definition as any of the meaning of the word cock here...

The verb cock means to move something from its usual alignment or kilter, to set it askew, askant or awry.

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.

  • Phrases.org isn't so sure that "cocked up" has a non-vulgar origin.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 21:43
  • @Martha: Well The Economist in 1955 would be quite a stickler for the niceties, and they printed it. Along with screwed up, which Obama still says now (screw didn't mean fuck in 1955). Phrases.org are hardly a bulletproof source. Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 22:06
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    "Cock up" certainly isn't considered offensive in the UK. News reporters love the phrase "cock-up not conspiracy". Of course, it's one of many phrases I'd avoid using with Americans in case they misunderstand it.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 11:06
  • @FumbleFingers The "1955" from your comment is at least 1999 or later, see the column to the left.
    – Hugo
    Commented Feb 13, 2012 at 18:54
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    @Hugo: You're quite right. Doesn't invalidate my point though - Pierre Clostermann would hardly be considered "foul-mouthed", and he was quite happy to write sorry old boy, there is a cock-up about the Typhies in his Le grand cirque (1948). Commented Feb 13, 2012 at 21:30

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:

  • all to shit
  • all to hell
  • all to crap

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.

  • I hadn't heard the phrase either. It's amazing how Americans thing everything is vulgar.
    – Evik James
    Commented Sep 15, 2011 at 20:56

The word cock is even allowed on television – James May loves it! It is all well even according to the dictionary:

cock |kɒk|

2 vulgar slang a penis.

3 Brit., informal nonsense : that's all a lot of cock.

As you can see, the third meaning is just informal (at least amongst the British), not vulgar.

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    I think your third meaning is a "cut-down" from all a cock-and-bull story, but I may be wrong on that. Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 23:19

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