Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Cock and Bull Story

I once told a friend that the phrase "cock and bull story" originated in Stony Stratford. He didn't believe me. He went further; he refused to believe that a phrase that had world wide currency could have begun in a small place like Stony Stratford.

The Cock Inn and the Bull Inn (now hotels) are on the same side of the High Street, not too far apart. They are more or less equal in size and importance and their rivalry goes back a long way, but competition was at it keenest during the great coaching years that preceded the Railway. Local legend has it that the rivalry extended to the telling of traveller's tales, bragging rights going to the Inn that could boast the most entertaining tales. Naturally this encouraged the tellers of "tall tales" which may have started with a vestige of truth but ended with something so fanciful as to be implausible. Thus the phrase "Cock and Bull story" came to be applied to any story that you might doubt the truth of - "That's a bit of a Cock and Bull Story!"

However, my friend may have been right not to believe this version of the origin of the phrase. Robert Burton writes in 1621 in his Anatomy of Melancholy:
"Some mens whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot."

And we have to take into account the American use of the word "bull", meaning rubbish or purely fanciful. Again we can't be too sure if this has an older meaning in the English language or if this may be a polite abbreviation of "bullshit".

Whereas, about the same time, the poet John Taylor is using the word "bull" to mean a joke or jest:

"Wit and Mirth ... Made up, and fashioned into Clinches, Bulls, Quirkes, Yerkes, Quips, and Jerkes." 
The Cock has an older tradition in story telling and features in Chaucer and other medieval writers. Usually the tales were told in a comic tradition.

So it is hard to come to a definite opinion on the matter. The Burton quotation, while within the period of travelling and staying at Inns, and when both Stony Stratford Inns were certainly in business, tells us that men are telling stories about cocks and bulls rather than in The Cock or The Bull.

We can make the argument both ways. A Cock and Bull story could be an outlandish and funny story that comes from an older tradition of storytelling, or, it could have its origins in the two  coaching inns in Stony Stratford. Take your pick!

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