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The meaning and origin of the expression: A cock-up

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A cock-up

Meaning

A blunder; a confused situation.

Origin

The British expression 'cock-up' isn't commonly used in the USA, where it is generally assumed to have a vulgar meaning. What they might make of Robert Burns' poem, which took the name of the old Scottish rhyme 'Cock up your beaver', is best left to the imagination. What Burns was actually referring to was adorning a beaver fur hat by putting a cock's feather into it.

'Cock', in the sense of this term, means 'stand up conspicuously', 'turn up at the edge', 'bend at an angle' etc. This is the sense of the early usage of the term 'cock-up', in the terms 'cock-up one's ears', 'cock-up one's nose'. In the 17th and 18th centuries people were also often advised to 'cock-up' their bonnets, eyes, even legs. The expression 'cock a snook' also derives from that same sense of 'cock'.

The vulgar interpretation is plausible. After all, the English slang terms 'balls-up', 'fuck-up' and 'screw-up' all mean the same as 'cock-up' and, for good measure, we also have 'going tits-up' as slang for falling over.

Do we need to look any further for a derivation? Well, perhaps we do. There is no 'smoking gun' documentary evidence that links 'cock-up' with either the vulgar 'penis' meaning or any of the many things that can, by mistake or otherwise, be left sticking up. As in the case of many possible meanings of 'yard' in 'the whole nine yards', this wide choice has encouraged a glut of suggested alternative derivations:

- The cocking of a gun.
- The turning up the brim of a hat, that is, a cocked hat.
- The accidental leaving of the ends of ship's spars in a titled, that is, 'cocked', position.
- The accidental putting up (into flight) of woodcocks during a hunt.
- The accidental leaving of the spigots (a.k.a. cocks) on beer barrels.
- The incorrect placement of the cock-feather when loading a longbow.
- The accidental misalignment of text in a line of type. (The large capital letters that used to be commonly seen at the beginning of paragraphs are called 'cock-up' letters.)

The first two can be gratefully ignored as they have no link to the meaning of 'cock-up'. All of the others can claim a degree of equality as they are all at least plausible. There's scant evidence to support any of them. The nearest I've been able to come to any documentary verification is to the 'putting birds to flight' theory. The American writer Henry Herbert, using the appropriate pseudonym of Frank Forester, published the novel The Warwick Woodlands, in 1851. That contains a reference to 'cock-up':

You'll find a blind track there, right through the brush - keep your eyes skinned, do! There'll be a cock up before you're ten yards in.

A hunter's mistaken disturbance of a bird and our current understanding of the term 'cock-up' match, so that has some claim to being more believable than the other suggestions. It is still speculative though and is probably as far as we can go with those 'explanations'.

The strongest evidence that might lead us to a derivation is circumstantial. The term 'cock-up' didn't become widely used to mean blunder until the middle of the 20th century. That puts paid to the above suggested derivations as they all refer to events and customs that were commonplace much earlier. 'Cock-up' came to be used in the way we now use it around 1920, as a slang term in the British forces. Given that source, it is difficult to believe the term to be anything other than a variant of 'balls-up'.