The number of things I don’t know is infinite — or infinite minus one, if such as number exists, since I discovered something the other day: the most unlikely origin for a common phrase. I could hardly believe it at first.
A perfectly current idiom in English is to talk of people currying favour, in the sense of ‘ingratiating themselves’. I knew that currying here had nothing to do with the kind of curry we eat with rice, the name of which we borrowed from Tamil in the 17th century.
I supposed, right enough, that the currying of favour was the sort done with a curry-comb when rubbing down a horse. The horsy curry came to us in the 13th century, from Old French conrei, meaning ‘preparation’.
I wasn’t ready, however, for the favour to be a false friend too. But history shows that the favour in question was originally favel, ‘a chestnut horse’. Curry favel was the way it was written from the 15th to the 17th century.
Suddenly, for me, all meaning had been emptied from the idiom. Why should rubbing down a chestnut horse mean ‘ingratiating oneself’ any more than another random phrase such as scorching the cheese or blowing the doormat?
Favel, as a horse-colour, is a variant of fallow (as in fallow-deer), and fallow is related to the Latin pallidus. The equus pallidus was ridden by Death in the Book of Revelation: Death on a pale horse. But the idiom currying favour has nothing to do with rubbing down the horse of Death.
The Favel referred to is the name of the hero of a medieval tale, the Roman de Fauvel. He is the equine version of Reynard the Fox. Fauvel the horse, thanks to Dame Fortune, exchanges his stable for a palace and is thus admired and flattered by worldly folk, lay and clerical. Those who want to flatter him make sure they curry Fauvel. Eventually Fauvel wins in marriage Lady Vainglory.
It is even possible to buy a recording of music found in the early 14th-century manuscript of the tale. I did not know anything about that until this week — but how little we do know of the words we use so easily.