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Here's what "cock-a-hoop" means -

Cock-a-hoop

: triumphantly pleased or boastful : happily exulting

// Are agents and builders cock-a-hoop that more money is coming into the housing market through building societies and local authorities? — Audrey Powell

Basic research showed that it comes from the mid 17th century -

: from the phrase set cock a hoop, of unknown origin, apparently denoting the action of turning on the tap and allowing liquor to flow (prior to a drinking session).

(From Lexico)

But etymonline.com doesn't have an entry for "cock-a-hoop".

Therefore, I would like to know more about the history and etymology of "cock-a-hoop".

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Where did 'cock-a-hoop' come from?

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) has this entry for cock-a-hoop:

cock-a-hoop adj (1663) {from the phrase to set cock a hoop to be festive} 1 : triumphantly boastful : EXULTING 2 : AWRY

Early English Books Online, however, reveals five instances of the expression from earlier than 1663. Three of these are accessible without logging in to the site as an academic. From Richard Brome, The New Academy, or, The New Exchange (1640), published in Five New Playes, viz. The English Moor, or The Mock-Marriage. The Love-Sick Court, or The Ambitious Politique: Covent Garden Weeded. The New Academy, or the New Exchange. The Queen and Concubine (1659):

Camelion. My Cock, my Cock again, my Nanny cock, / Cock-all my Cock-a-hoop, I am overjoy'd, / See, see thy father too.

Here, the word seems to be being used as a noun.

From Kaina kai Palaia Things New and Old, or, A Store-House of Similies, Sentences, Allegories, Apophthegms, Adagies, Apologues, Divine, Morall, Politicall, &c. : with Their Severall Applications (1658):

It is St. Pauls saying of himselfe, That he was alive without the Law, i. he had great quietnesse and ease of mind, all things went well with him, he was Cock a hoope, sound and safe, he thought himselfe in a sure and safe way; but alass, this was his ignorance, his blindnesse; just like a Man in a Dungeon, that thinks himselfe safe, when there are Serpents and poysonous Creatures round about him, onely he doth not see them: Or as a Man in a Lethargy, feels no pain though he be at the selfe same time near unto the gates of Death.

And from John Dauncey, The History of His Sacred Majesty Charles the II, Third Monarch of Great Britain, Crowned King of Scotland, at Scoone the First of Ianuary 1650 Begun from the Death of His Royall Father of Happy Memory, and Continued to the Present Year, 1660 (1660):

This strange and wonderful Victory (as the Juncto at Westminster gave it out to be, though they had six to one in the field) made that sectarian party cock-a-hoop; and to make it the greater, publick days of Thanks-giving are appointed to make God the patronizer of their villanies, murders, tyrannies and treasons; and now they boast in all their discourses how clearly it might appear that God owned their cause, and disowned their adversaries.

Here, the term is clearly being used as an adjective.

The 1663 instance that the Eleventh Collegiate seems to have in mind is from Samuel Butler, Hudibras (1663):

For though Dame Fortune seem to smile / And leer upon him for a while; / She'l after shew him, in the nick / Of all his Glories, a Dog-trick. / This any man may sing or say, / I'th' Ditty call'd, What if a day. / For Hudibras, who thought h'had won / The field as suer as a Gun, / And having routed the whole Troop, / With Victory was Cock-a-hoop;

The instance of the phrase "set cock a hoop," which Merriam-Webster indicates is the origin of the term cock-a-hoop, may well be the one in Romeo and Juliet (1597):

Tibald. It fits, when such a villain is a guest. / I'll not endure him.

Capulet. He shall be endured. / What goodman boy—I say he shall. Go to— / Am I the master here, or you? go to— / You'll not endure him! God shall mend my soul. / You'll make a mutiny among my guests: / You will set cock-a-hoop? you'll be the man?

There is, however, an earlier related phrase in English, as pointed out by an astute contributor to Notes and Queries (October 18, 1873). From A Newe Mery and Wittie Comedie or Enterlude, Newely Imprinted, Treating vpon the Historie of Iacob and Esau Taken out of the xxvij. Chap. of the First Booke of Moses Entituled Genesis (1568):

Good lucke is not euermore against Esau. / He coursed and coursed again with his dogges here: / But they could at no time take either hare or dere. / At last he killed this with his bowe as God wold. / And to say that it is fatte venison be bolde. / But dressed it must be at once in all the haste, / That olde father Isaac may haue his repast. / Then without delay Esau shall blessed be, / Then faith cock on houpe, al is ours, then who but he? / But I must in that it may be drest in time likely, / And I trow ye shall sée it made ready quickly.

Here, "cock on houpe" indicates a moment of triumph, but without any "setting" of the cock as in Romeo and Juliet.


Why 'hoop'?

Nathan Bailey, Dictionarium Britannicum: Or a More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary has this entry for cock-a-hoop:

COCK a hoop [coque-a-hupe, F[rench]. i. e. a cock with a copecrest or comb] standing upon high terms all upon the spur.

It follows that the "hoop" is simply an anglicization of the French word hupe, or rather huppe, which Harrap's New Collegiate French and English Dictionary (1978) defines as follows:

huppe, s.f. Tuft, crest (of a bird).

A coque-a-huppe is thus a cock with its crest erect, presumably typical behavior of a rooster that is signaling its dominance. It is interesting that this asserted source of cock-a-hoop doesn't seem to require the expression "set cock a hoop" to bring it into English. It is also consistent with the instance of cock-a-hoop in Richard Brome's New Academy (from 1640/1659), where the term appears as a noun, not an adjective.

Bailey's definition of cock-a-hoop seems reasonably consistent with the sense of the term implied in the entry for "Upon the high ropes" in A New Canting Dictionary (1725):

ROPE. Upon the High-ropes, Cock-a-hoop. ...

In this slang usage, however, the term appears to be an adjective.


A contrary theory of origin

John Jamieson, Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, volume 1 (1825) offers this entry (and alternative explanation) for cock-a-hoop:

COCK-A-HOOP, The E[nglish] phrase is used to denote a bumper, Fife. One who is half seas over, is also said to be cock-a-hoop, ibid.; which is nearly akin to the E[nglish] sense, "triumphant, exulting." Spenser uses cock on hoop, which seems to determine the origin ; q. the cock seated on the top of his roost.

But Bailey in 1730 was aware of the phrase "cock on hoop," too, and gave it a separate entry:

COCK on hoop {i.e. the cock or spiggot, being laid upon the hoop, and the barrel of ale stunn'd, i.e. drank out without intermission} at the height of mirth and jollity.

James Murray, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1893) cites multiple instances of "to set the cock on the hoop" in the sense of "turn the tap and let the liquor flow" from the sixteenth century—specifically, from 1529 (They . . set them downe and dryncke well for our sauiours sake, sette cocke a hoope, and fyll in all the cuppes at once, and then lette Chrystes passionpay for all the scotte."). 1538 ("Cheare now maye I make & set cocke on the houpe. Fyll in all the pottes, and byd me welcome hostesse."), 1540 ("Let us sette the cocke on the hoope and make good chere within doores."), and 1560 ("He maketh banok and setteth cocke on the hoope. He is so laueis, the stock beginneth to droop.").

Still in summing up the origin of the expression, Murray says this:

A phrase of doubtful origin, the history of which has been further obscured by subsequent attempts, explicit or implicit to analyse it.

And by 1640, there seems to have been no necessary connection between literal drinking and the expression "set cock-a-hoop," as we see in this instance in Ben Jonson, A Tale of a Tub (1634/1640):

Tobie Turfe [High Constable of Kentish Towne]. Iohn Clay age'n! nay, then—set Cock a hoope : / I ha' lost no Daughter, nor no money, Justice. / Iohn Clay shall pay. Ile looke to you now Iohn. Vaith out it must, as good at night , as morning. ? I am ene as vell as a Pipers bag with joy, / Or a great Gun upon carnation day!

High Constable Turfe is expressing exultation here, not literally instructing those assembled to open the tap of a barrel of ale and let the contents flow out without remission.


Conclusions

The etymology of the expression cock-a-hoop is, as Murray says, complicated by different lines of usage from a fairly early date. The drinking sense of "cock a [or on] hoop" was in use from at least as early as 1529, as Murray documents. But cock-a-hoop (without the word set introducing it) as an expression of joy is old, too—going back at least to 1568 (in the form of "cock on houpe") in the anonymous play about Jacob and Esau.

The sense of cock-a-hoop as cockily triumphant may well have emerged out of the merely exulting sense of the term, but it doesn't come clearly distinct as a third meaning until the middle 1600s. Attempts to link cock-a-hoop to "coque a huppe" in French may be wishful thinking on the part of Nathan Bailey and other, but the match in sense is appealing enough to have (perhaps) influenced subsequent usage in a way that seemed to reinforce its legitimacy.

Ultimately, this is another situation where "origin unknown" is the most defensible conclusion. But there is no shortage of possible origins in this case—quite the contrary, in fact.

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