A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "cock and bull"?

February 13, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

What's the story with the term "cock and bull"? I can figure out what a bull is, and I know there's more to a cock than anatomy, but why do a rooster and a bull symbolize a fictional story?

Mother Goose's A Cock And Bull Story:

The cock's on the housetop, blowing his horn:
The bull's in the barn a-threshing of corn:
The maids in the meadows are making of hay:
The ducks in the river are swimming away.

"Cock and bull"--a fabricated story meant to deceive and/or amuse. There's a French variation, coq-a-l'ane (cock to donkey), and believe it or not a Scottish derivative of the French variation--"cockalayne." The first known use of the phrase was in John Day's 1608 play Law-trickes or Who Would Have Thought It: "What a tale of a cock and a bull he told my father." But the term was evidently proverbial before that.

There are competing theories about the origins of "cock and bull." One source claims that the phrase is a corruption of "a concocted and bully story," with "bully" being a further corruption of the Danish bullen, which means exaggerated.

Nonsense, say other sources. The Phrase Finder suggests the phrase came about when coaches would carry travelers to one of two inns that were close to each other on the old London Road at Stony Stratford near Buckinghamshire, England. Rivalries arose between the groups of travelers who favored one inn over the other, and boastful tales were exchanged. The names of the two inns? The Cock and the Bull, of course. 

The Word Detective passes along a similar story involving just one inn, the Cock and Bull, but finds it doubtful. The more likely explanation, Word Detective ventures, is that the expression refers to old fables featuring talking animals, a notion that the French "cock to donkey" tends to corroborate. We've seen similar usages arise in our own time, leading me to think Word Detective has it right and that alternative theories are not just cock and bull stories but--dare I say it?--mickey mouse. 

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