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Hue and cry

Q From Dave: What does hue and cry mean?

A This idiom, meaning a loud clamour or public outcry, contains the obsolete word hue, which people these days know only as a slightly formal or technical word for a colour or shade. As a result, you sometimes see the phrase written as hew and cry.

Our modern meaning goes back to part of English common law in the centuries after the Norman Conquest. There wasn’t an organised police force and the job of fighting crime fell mostly on ordinary people. If somebody robbed you, or you saw a murder or other crime of violence, it was up to you to raise the alarm, the hue and cry. Everybody in the neighbourhood was then obliged to drop what they were doing and help pursue and capture the supposed criminal. If the criminal was caught with stolen goods on him, he was summarily convicted (he wasn’t allowed to say anything in his defence, for example), while if he resisted arrest he could be killed. The same term was used for a proclamation relating to the capture of a criminal or the finding of stolen goods. The laws relating to hue and cry were repealed in Britain in 1827.

This mysterious word hue is from the first part of the Anglo-Norman French legal phrase hu e cri. This came from the Old French hu for an outcry, in turn from huer, to shout. It seems that hue could mean any cry, or even the sound of a horn or trumpet — the phrase hu e cri had a Latin equivalent, hutesium et clamor, “with horn and with voice”.

As an etymological footnote, the Old French huer survived in Cornwall right down to the early twentieth century. At that time an important part of local livelihoods in coastal communities came from the seasonal catch of fish called pilchards, which migrated past the coast in great shoals in early autumn. To be sure of not missing their arrival, fishermen posted lookouts on the cliffs. They were called huers, since they commonly alerted the waiting fishermen by shouting through speaking trumpets.

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Page created 22 Feb 2003