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According to Cocker

Q From Sheila Napier: An expression I have heard before but just encountered again in the works of Austin Freeman is according to Cocker. Where does it come from and who was Cocker?

A R Austin Freeman wrote his detective stories, which featured the medico-legal forensic investigator Dr John Thorndyke, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. By then I think the idiom was well on its way to falling out of common use. Its heyday was the previous century — Freeman would have learned it in his youth in the 1870s. This is one example in his works:

There was no sign of the driver, and no one minding the horse; and as this was not quite according to Cocker, it naturally attracted his attention.

Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke, by R Austin Freeman, 1931.

Something done according to Cocker was done properly, according to established rules or what was considered to be correct.

The etymological story starts in 1678, when John Hawkins published the manuscript of a book which Edward Cocker had left at his death two years earlier. Cocker had been the master of a grammar school in Southwark, across the Thames from the City of London, and Hawkins was his successor in the post. (It has been claimed that the book was actually by Hawkins, trading on Cocker’s name, but the current view is that Cocker really had written it.) The book, after the fashion of the time, had an expansive title — Cocker’s Arithmetick: Being a Plain and familiar Method suitable to the meanest Capacity for the full understanding of that Incomparable Art, as it is now taught by the ablest School-masters in City and Country.

The Arithmetick (like musick and other words it has since lost its final letter) was an enormous success. It had reached its twentieth edition by 1700 and went through more than a hundred altogether. It was widely used to teach basic arithmetic in English schools for well over a century (“if 13 yards of velvet cost 21 l. what will 27 yards of the same cost at that rate?” — l here stands for pounds, as in the old LSD for pounds, shillings and pence). One of the main reasons for its popularity was that Cocker directed it at the needs of practical men of business, and included examples of real transactions in commerce, the building trades, and elsewhere.

The book was so much part of every educated person’s childhood that it became the authority to which everybody turned when in need of confirmation of the accuracy of a calculation. This lies behind this early appearance of the phrase, in a letter from a lady complaining that she had had no success getting up a game of cards to be played for guineas:

Mrs. Buckram, wife to the deputy of Portsoken ward, purtested [protested] she never played for above sixpences, and added, that her husband had calculated, according to Cocker, that an alderman might be ruined in a month, if his wife cut in for shillings.

The Town and Country Magazine, Mar. 1785.

Many other examples of this appeal to arithmetical authority are recorded in the years that follow (“The Dividend payable at the Bank upon 23l. 8s. is (according to Cocker) 23s. 22d. per annum.” — Morning Post, 25 Oct. 1816; “In this house it happened that the ale was sevenpence per quart, at which rate, according to Cocker, it would be three halfpence and a farthing per half-pint” — Aberdeen Journal, 12 Aug. 1829). (These aren’t quite according to Cocker to me, having grown up with this monetary system. There were 12 pennies to a shilling, so “23s. 22d” would have been better rendered as “24s. 10d.” And, a farthing being a quarter of a penny, “three halfpence and a farthing” would surely have been simpler said as “a penny three farthings”.)

It was easy to extend an appeal to arithmetical authority to any action that was carried out according to an established rule or convention.

Curiously, Edward Cocker wasn’t known in his lifetime for his skill in arithmetic. He was an expert engraver and what was then called a pen-man, a calligrapher. Samuel Pepys praises him several times in his Diary, in particular because Cocker was the only man Pepys found with the skill to engrave his new slide rule.

There are several related expressions. The most famous is according to Hoyle. Edmond Hoyle wrote several works on card games from the 1740s onwards and was often cited as an authority on their rules, in particular whist. At one time, an equivalent Americanism was according to Gunter. Edmund Gunter was an English mathematician of the sixteenth century who invented the Gunter’s chain, widely used in surveying, and Gunter’s rule, an early type of slide rule.

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Page created 26 Jan 2013