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Cooking one's goose

Q From Colin Hague: The expression goose is cooked appears in the stage and film versions of Les Misérables. Might its origin be of interest to subscribers?

A I hope so, but the historical record is unhelpful about details, as so often with slangy idioms. The gap has been filled with many folk etymological tales.

The known facts first. Various forms — do his goose for him and cook his goose as well as goose is cooked — start to appear in British writings in the 1830s, as in this report of a court case:

The complainant said that on Saturday morning he was at the plying place at the Tower stairs, when Crouch began to abuse him, and swore he would “cook his goose,” by which he meant he would ruin him, or put an end to his mortal existence.

True Sun (London), 26 Oct. 1837. A plying place is one where a porter, cabman or boatman waited to be hired; it’s from an old sense of ply meaning to solicit patronage. British taxis, for example, still officially ply for hire.

This is another appearance from a decade later:

“I rather think, friend Sandy,” said Smith, looking cheerfully back at the bedroom as he turned the corner, “I rather think, to use a figurative expression, your goose is cooked!”

Paddiana; or, Scraps and Sketches of Irish life, by William Henry Gregory, 1847. Later Sir William Gregory, the author was Governor of Ceylon in the 1870s.

The idiom is so common and yet so mysterious that numerous stories have appeared to try to explain it. One suggestion online is that it derives from a wry joke about the fate of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus — whose name is similar to husa, his native Czech word for a goose — who was burned at the stake in Constance by the Catholic Church in 1415. The gap of four centuries before the idiom appears, in another country, renders this implausible. Myron Korach argued in Common Phrases in 2008 that it refers to a battle fought by Eric, a king of Sweden, who was known to love eating goose. His enemies set one up for their archers to shoot at but Eric won a great victory and with relish cooked and ate their goose. We may disregard this tale for similar reasons. We may also take no notice of the vague story that a besieged town once displayed a goose to show that it had enough food, provoking the attackers to set the bird on fire. A connection has also been made with the goose who laid the golden eggs; the farmer who owned it killed it to find the secret, only to be left with no gold but merely a goose to cook.

We may not know the details of its origin, but we can get a good idea of what was in its creators’ minds from other food-related idioms of this period and later. People might express the same idea through giving him his gruel or settling his hash. A person in deep trouble might be in a stew or run the risk that somebody will make mincemeat of him. (However, had his chips isn’t in the set, as that comes from gambling.)

Why we’re so fond of figuratively relating the consumption of food to murder, spoiling someone’s plans or causing their downfall is, I suspect, a matter more for psychologists than lexicographers.

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Page created 20 Apr 2013