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Mind your language

Why won’t the media call a cock a cock?

Cockerel means a young cock. It’s like calling all cats kittens

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

On the Radio 4 news at 11 o’clock last Saturday morning there was a joky report about roosters in Brisbane. The cocks, it said, were annoying people with their crowing. The news at noon called them not roosters and cocks, but cockerels and fowls.

I wrote here in 2005 about the advent of the ‘Year of the Cockerel’ and suggested that cock would soon be unusable because it put everyone in mind of a rude word for penis. Things have got worse since then. Mealy-mouthed folk who say cockerel simply ignore its meaning, which is ‘a young cock’. It’s like calling all cats kittens. Oddly enough, the Oxford English Dictionary says that cockerel is ‘archaic or dialect’. That was in 1891, when the entry was written and prim Victorians happily spoke of a cock crowing, even though the lexicographers admitted that it was also ‘The current name for penis among the people, but, pudoris causa, not admissible in polite speech or literature.’


Earlier this month some undergraduates demanded that a Benin bronze that someone had bequeathed to Jesus College, Cambridge, 85 years ago should be sent back to Africa. The Daily Mail called it a cockerel throughout a long article, as did the Guardian and the Sunday Times (which made it a rooster in a headline). Yet the only reason that the bronze had been given to the college is that cocks are a college emblem, a rebus for its founder Bishop Alcock. His lovely chantry chapel at Ely is thick with cocks. Even an exhortation to his clergy was printed under the name Gallicantus, ‘cock crow’.

At the same time, Boris Johnson excused an email seeming to gag employees by saying it was a cock-up. Here cock-up is a politer version of fuck-up. People might claim that a cock-up is merely a bent-up version of something that should be straight, but as slang it is found no earlier than Eric Partridge’s dictionary of 1948.

I must say that it was optimistic even in my schooldays to expect us young girls to recite Burns’s poem ‘Cock up your beaver’ without giggling. Today, having cock-ups, but never a simple cock, seems less a cock-up than a conspiracy.

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