Cockney: in the 19th century, the origin of few words was discussed as much and as vehemently in both professional and lay circles. It surfaced in a text dated 1362, but the earliest known attempt to explain its derivation goes back to 1617. John Minsheu, the author of the first etymological dictionary of English, recounted an anecdote about a London child, who, after being taken to the countryside and informed by his father that horses neigh, heard a rooster and asked: “Does the cock neigh too?” Hence, allegedly, cockney, a derisive name for a Londoner. This story has been repeated innumerable times and can be found in both the OED and the multivolume American Century Dictionary. Of course, the anecdote was told tongue in cheek, for no one could grow up in London without knowing anything about horses. Yet even 200 years later some credulous folks, who touched on the origin of cockney, referred to Minsheu as their authority.
Etymology is politicized more often than non-specialists may think. Words travel from language to language in happy disregard of national, confessional, and other borders. Unfortunately, it is often believed that taking over a term of material culture from a neighbor or a distant land lowers the prestige of the borrowing nation. When ideological battles are fought over this nonsense, hot-headed linguists and journalists defend the greatness of their country with the help of dictionaries and reconstructed forms. Cockney is a special case, for it caused the only etymological war between England and the United States. And a bitter war it was, with casualties on both sides. It happened when the great James H. Murray, the first editor of the OED, accused the editors of The Century Dictionary of the ignorance that would not be tolerated even by female extension students at Oxford, and all because he disapproved of The Century’s treatment of cockney. The conflict raged for several years and attracted the attention of some famous scholars. Later, oil was poured on troubled waters and the countries became allies again, never to indulge in open hostilities. (But friends can disagree, can they not?)
Shakespeare, Minsheu’s contemporary, knew the word cockney and used it twice in his plays. When King Lear, stung by his daughters’ ingratitude, exclaims: “O me! My heart, my rising heart! But down!” the Fool retorts: “Cry to it, Nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put’em i’th’paste alive; she knapp’d’em o’th’coxcombs with a stick, and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’ ‘Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.” Cockney seems to mean “idiot” here. In Twelfth Night, Feste (so again a fool) meets Sebastian whom he takes for Cesario, that is, for his twin sister Viola in disguise and addresses him. Sebastian does not understand what Feste wants and says: “I prithee vent thy folly somewhere else, / Thou know’st not me.” Feste, amused by Sebastian’s pompous phrase vent thy folly, answers: “Vent thy folly! He has heard that word of some great man, and now applies it to a fool. Vent thy folly! I am afraid this great lubber, the world, will prove a cockney.” The sentence, which probably contains a pun, is obscure, but in it, too, cockney means “idiot.” Chaucer used cockney in the same way (“idiot, simpleton”).
Two reputable etymologies of cockney competed for a long time. One explained it with reference to the land of Cockaigne, a fabulous country of abundance and, by inference, London. The other connected cockney with Medieval Latin coquina “kitchen.” The name Cockaigne, which is of Romance origin, means something like “cookie land.” The “kitchen” etymology reconstructed the following intermediate stages: from coquina to coquinator “cook, scullion,” to a term of contempt, and finally, to cockney. French coquin “rogue, scoundrel” and acoquiner “seduce; deprave” appeared to provide an additional link.
As noted, cockney first surfaced in English in 1362. In Langland’s poem The Tournament of Totenham, there is a line: “Every v and v had a cockenay.” The symbol v means “five,” and Murray was the first to explain that cockenay in that sentence should be understood as cocken-ay “cock’s egg,” that is, “defective egg.” (“Every group of five guests was given the measly repast of a bad egg.” Earlier commentators took cockenay for “cook,” which made little sense.) His translation cannot be challenged. Egg is a word of Scandinavian origin that supplanted the native form ay (compare German Ei), but a better division is cock-e-ney, with -e- being a spelling variant of intrusive -a- (as in cock-a-doodle-doo and rag-a-muffin), and n- in -ney having the same origin as n- in nuncle “uncle” and many other words of this type. (“This type” includes nouns that attracted n- from an and mine preceding them or from n- whose source was m-.) Murray concluded that “defective egg” had been the earliest meaning of cockney. Here he was probably mistaken. Cockney “defective egg,” an obsolete word even in Middle English, occurred too rarely to become a model for popular slang, whereas the main meaning of cockney was “spoiled child, pet child.” Who would liken one’s darling to a bad egg? It has been proposed that a word meaning “small or misshapen egg” could be applied to men with small or misshapen testes and hence to any man who lacked virility; thus from “effeminate fellow” to “milksop, codling.” However, cockney never refers to male genitals in extant Middle English texts.
The question remains partly open. Perhaps cockney does go back to an Old French participle acoquine “pampered, idle,” as was suggested long ago, but some phonetic difficulties that seemed insurmountable to Murray weaken this hypothesis. Dictionaries say “origin unknown” (which is not a true assessment of the situation) or cite Murray’s etymology (from “defective egg”), or add their own, often fanciful cognates, or give both derivations supplied with question marks. Most likely, we should recognize the fact that cockney “bad egg” and cockney “Londoner” are, historically speaking, different words. The first one is forgotten. The French origin of cockney in current use is uncertain but not improbable.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”