By hook or by crook
By whatever means necessary - be they fair or foul.
'Hook' is a word with many meanings and as a consequence it appears in numerous English phrases - 'get one's hooks into', 'hook, line and sinker', 'on/off the hook', 'sling your hook' and, most notably, 'by hook or by crook'. That last phrase is one of the holy grails of etymology; many people are sure they know the derivation but, in truth, the origin is rather obscure. We can be sure that it is a very old phrase and that it was in general use by the late 14th century.
This is one of those expressions that many people believe they know the origin of - but really, they don't.
There may be examples of a form of the expression in the writings of John Wyclif from around 1380, but scholars aren't sure of their date. The first substantiated citation is from John Gower's Confessio Amantis, 1390. :
What with hepe and what with croke they [false Witness and Perjury] make her maister ofte winne.
[Hepe was the mediaeval name for a curved billhook]
Gower didn't use the modern 'by hook or by crook' version of the phrase, but it is clear that he was using the reference to hooks and crooks in the same sense that we do now.
The earliest example of the modern usage of the phrase that I can find is in Philip Stubbes' The Anatomie of Abuses, 1583:
Either by hooke or crooke, by night or day.
As is my habit when the origin of a phrase is uncertain, I'll present the most commonly suggested theories and leave the rest to you:
- Suggestion number one is that 'by hook or by crook' derives from the custom in mediaeval England of allowing peasants to take from royal forests whatever deadwood they could pull down with a shepherd's crook or cut with a reaper's billhook. This feudal custom was recorded in the 1820s by the English rural campaigner William Cobbett, although the custom itself long predates that reference.
- Another commonly repeated suggestion is that the phrase comes from the names of the villages of Hook Head and the nearby Crooke, in Waterford, Ireland. Hook Head and Crooke are on opposite sides of the Waterford channel and Cromwell (born 1599, died 1658) is reputed to have said that Waterford would fall 'by Hook or by Crooke', that is, by a landing of his army at one of those two places during the siege of the town in 1649/50.
- A third suggestion is that the phrase derives from the career of Sir George Croke, a celebrated English judge. Croke (or Crook) was on the bench in the reign of Charles I (born 1600, died 1649) and became popular for his refusal to accept the legality of a 'Ship Money' tax imposed by Charles without the consent of Parliament. It was commonly said that ship money "may be gotten by Hook [that is, by force], but not by Crook".
It's worth saying at this point that suggestions two and three look dubious. Both have clear links to 'by hook or by crook' but refer to events that are later in date than the phrase's first uses in print. There are other suggested theories too and, although 'wood gathering using hooks and crooks' isn't a provable derivation, it has to be a strong favourite.