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I found an article, titled “The mystery of people who speaks dozen of languages” written by Judith Thurman in the latest New Yorker (September 3 issue) very intriguing.

She introduces a 27-year old Peruvian linguist, Miguel Rojas-Bersia, a doctorial candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistic, who has good command of 22 living languages including English, French, German,Italian, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Hakka Chines, Japanese, Korean, Serbian, Esperanto, and so on, 13 of which he speaks fluently and is versed to classic languages such as Latin, Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew. Thurman describes this young hyper polyglot as;

“He looks like any other laid-back young tourist, except for the intense focus – all senses cocked –with which he takes in a new environment. Linguistics is a formidable discipline.

I have no idea about the phrase, “all senses cocked,” and I checked several English dictionaries at hand as well as online dictionaries without avail.

What does “all senses cocked” mean? Is it a common English phrase?

  • 3
    I do not recognize this as an idiom. There may be further insight in the dictionary under cock (verb): oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/… – MetaEd Aug 30 '18 at 20:01
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    The OED says both the sense of cock the head/hat and the sense of cock the hammer/pistol come from the characteristic motion (and in the case of early firearms, the characteristic shape) of a cock's head. Roosters used to be more obvious and common as examples for metaphors than they are today. – John Lawler Aug 30 '18 at 21:45
  • @JohnLawler: You might want to leave that as an answer, and merge the relevant other information into your own answer as well. – V2Blast Aug 31 '18 at 7:13
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This probably comes from the phrase 'cocking the gun' which means to ready the gun to fire. 'Senses cocked' would then translate to very alert or charged senses.

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    I agree that it means all senses are alert (+1) It could also be a reference back to the idioms of cocking an ear or an eye. – S Conroy Aug 30 '18 at 20:10
  • Here is an example of where it was used: blogginboutbooks.com/2009/12 – Lumberjack Aug 30 '18 at 20:10
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It's not unusual to cock your head, or sometimes to cock your ears to hear something better. Collins (senses 3/4) says that this use is a synonym of prick up or point, so that only animals can genuinely cock their ears, and birds frequently cock their heads, whether male or female. Cocking all senses is an extension of this - whether an exciting metaphor or a step too far from someone who doesn't know the derivation is a personal choice.

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    To me it doesn't suggest this sense of cock, but (as ndp2018 says) cocking a gun. – Colin Fine Aug 30 '18 at 20:33
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    I agree, in this context I would associate this phrase with the idiom "cock your/an ear", meaning "listen carefully". In this case, the young linguist isn't just alert to sound, but alert to all sensory input. – 1006a Aug 30 '18 at 21:43
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    Maybe, as they say, "A little column A, a little column B". Rather poetic, really. – Darren Ringer Aug 31 '18 at 17:54
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In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

The OED says both the sense of cock the head/hat and the sense of cock the hammer/pistol come from the characteristic motion (and in the case of early firearms, the characteristic shape) of a cock's head. Roosters used to be more obvious and common as examples for metaphors than they are today.

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