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By hook or by crook

Here is a phrase whose origin seems to be known, but, as this does not mean that everybody knows it, a short discussion may not be out of place. I have such a huge database of idioms that once in six weeks or so I am seized with a desire to share my treasures with the public. Since open-handedness is a lesser sin than cupidity, I hope to be forgiven.

There was a man called John Bellenden Ker, a noted botanist (the mountain in Australia is named after him), who also wrote A Book on the Archaeology of Our Popular Phrases and Nursey Rhymes, a kind of dictionary in two volumes (1837, 1840). Of all the crazy works on English etymology it is probably the craziest. For some reason, Ker decided that several hundred popular phrases originated in “Low Saxon,” the progenitor of Modern Dutch. Judging by his explanations, he did not have the faintest idea of Dutch. His Archaeology reads like the famous English As She Is Spoke. Few people remember Ker’s book today—the more reason to mention this bizarre composition and warn the unwary. Ker explained by hook or by crook as going back to by hucke o’er krooke; “or, as we now say, by bowing and scraping, by crouching and cringing.” It would be unmerciful to discuss this nonsense further.

Most other conjectures are also wrong but remain within the bounds of normalcy. One can read in many books that at some time in the past two closely associated people existed, one named Hook(e) and the other Crook(e). I have often tried to discover the source of this legend (that is, have there ever lived such counterparts of Messers. Tweedledum and Tweedledee?) but failed to uncover it. Anyway, Hooke and Crooke, we are told, were the judges who in their day decided most unconscientiously whenever the interests of the crown were affected, and it used to be said that the king could get anything by Hooke or by Crooke. According to a more clement version, the two judges were famous for the perpetual diversity of opinion, so that every suitor was sure to have either Hook or Crook on his side. No indication is ever given to the time when those two worthies abused or exercised their power. Presumably, the meaning of the word crook “swindler” gave rise to the first etymology.

The other pair of gentlemen responsible for the emergence of the English idiom has been traced to the great fire of London (1666). Allegedly, when the rubbish left by the fire was removed, the disputes of those whose houses had been destroyed delayed the rebuilding of the city. So two surveyors were appointed to determine the rights of the various claimants, and (what a wonderful coincidence!) not only were they called Mr. Hook and Mr. Crook, but, unlike the two perfidious or contentious judges mentioned above, they turned out to be the very embodiment of integrity. They gave general satisfaction to the interested parties; hence the saying. The person who told this anecdote stated (in 1851) that he had heard if from an old gentleman “upwards of eighty, by no means of an imaginative temperament.” Many of our readers will remember the Grimms’ tale “The Hare and the Hedgehog” about how the slow but smart hedgehog outstripped the fast but arrogant hare. It begins so: “This story was actually made up, young ones, but it really is true, for my grandfather, who told it to me, always said whenever he told it, ‘it must be true, my son, otherwise it could not be told’.” Such is all oral tradition. I may add that most hypotheses depending on the existence of proper names as etymons are fanciful.

The often repeated explanation connects the idiom with the 1172 invasion of Ireland by the English. It resolves itself into the following. Hook and Crook are well-known historic places in the port of Waterford, and the pilots of the invading fleet are said to have declared that they would safely land the invading forces by Hook or by Crook. This legend is (or was) popular in Waterford and Wexford. Surely, reference to real places carries more conviction than a fib about two judges or two surveyors, but it still belongs with countless etiological legends, purporting to explain natural phenomena or historical events by tying them to certain localities. Who heard those pilots? The tale was evidently first told by Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Armagh, in the seventeenth century.

Archbishop Loftus, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I have also run into the following specimens of intelligent guessing: 1) the idiom probably means “‘foully like a thief or holily like a bishop’, the hook being used by burglars, the crook being the bishop’s crozier”; 2) “an old London legend tells us that the numerous families of Hook and Crook formerly did the ferry business for the whole of the British metropolis. No odds on what boat you crossed the Thames, you were sure to ride with Hook or Crook” (no reference to the source of “an old London legend” is given).

Hooks are hooked, and croziers are crooked, but this is not why we say by hook or by crook.

The English idiom surfaced in texts at the end of the fourteenth century, a fact that makes some of the hypotheses mentioned above (for instance, reference to the invasion and the fire of London) devoid of even minimal interest. The appearance of a word or set phrase in a book means that it was current and understood earlier, but the time gap does not have to be huge in all cases. The most probable origin of our idiom was discovered as far back as 1850 (such at least is my earliest reference). Medieval conveyancers (that is, lawyers who specialized in the legal aspects of buying and selling property) had to give grant of dead wood for fuel, over a tract of woodland, which might be available without interfering with the more substantial use and profits of the timber for the general purposes of the landowner. The use of axes, bills, or saws was not allowed, while hooked poles, or crooks, by which dry or dead bits of wood could be detached and pulled down from the upper branches of the tree were fine.

This thicket is full of hooks and crooks.
This thicket is full of hooks and crooks.

A few citations in the OED show that hook and crook were at one time interchangeable synonyms. It follows that by hook or by crook is a tautological binomial of the type safe and sound, except that the basis of safe and sound is alliteration, while by hook or by crook depends on rhyme. The OED prefers not to commit itself to any hypothesis of origins; it only indicates that some conjectures are at variance with chronology, and indeed we have seen examples of this flaw above. In the present case, reference to forest customs makes sense. In the Middle Ages, the phrase was a legal formula (such mnemonic devices as rhyme and alliteration are common in the oldest laws of all Germanic-speaking nations, for, in the past, laws had to be reproduced from memory). Later it acquired a “mundane” sense, namely “by all available means,” and this is the reason we are no longer aware of its origin.

Few etymologies are final. This rule holds for idioms as well as for words, but I believe that the derivation presented above possesses a rather high degree of probability, the best thing that can happen to an etymology.

Image credits: (1) “Fish hook” by MrX, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (2) “Crozier with the Annunciation” by Walters Art Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (3) “Thicket” by Chris Burke, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Featured image: Fish Hook. Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    In 1816 an explanation was offered by “Oedipus Jocularis”: “…the hook is the peasant’s instrument to cut down any thing within his immediate reach, but when that is too elevated, he must have recourse to his crook, with which the lofty bough may be brought to his grasp. Thus craft allures, what force cannot conquer.”
    A 1550 work by Thomas Becon (not Bacon as Notes & Queries 1850 has it) complains of rich owners: “Whatsoever is pleasant or profitable must be theirs, by hook or by crook…” For context (in an 1844 reprint with modernized spelling): https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=yale.39002001075739;view=1up;seq=611

  2. Dave Wilton

    Do you have any medieval citations of the phrase being used in a legal or forestry context?

    And you apparently missed the earliest citation, which is from the late thirteenth century, and is contained in the MED. It’s not in the familiar rhyming form, but it references both hooks and crooks: “?a1300 Sayings St.Bern.(Dgb 86) 761/117: Þou be war of his [the Devil’s] hok! Do nou also ich haue þe seid, And alle þre sulen ben aleid Wiþ here owene crok.”

    Depictions of Satan and other devils carrying hooks or crooks is a staple of medieval imagery. This, plus the fact that all the early citations given in the dictionaries are in ecclesiastical or religious contexts, leads me to think an allusion to Satan and his minions is a more probable origin.

  3. Seattle sailor

    OK, I agree with the “by hook or by crook” analysis, but what hook, or whose crook? How were these hooks and crooks used in the day this saying was first used? Which leads to the obvious questions, When was this phrase first used? 18th century? earlier? later? Thanks, love your column!

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