Q From David Armstrong, Ontario, Canada: Whilst at a meeting recently, someone told the story of how Cock and bull story got its name. According to the tale-teller, there were two inns in England (the name of the town escapes me), The Cock and The Bull. To entice customers into either inn, each had its own barker, constantly extolling the virtues of his inn. Each time the barker tried to get a customer to come in, the story would be more outlandish than the previous, and hence the term. This seems simplistic to me, is there a grain of truth in this?
A Nary a smidgen of a trace of a germ of truth. It’s a cock-and-bull story in two senses.
The tale is a variation on the standard version, which tells of two inns of those names which stand on High Street in Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire. The two inns were the staging posts for rival coach lines, whose passengers were regarded by the locals as sources of news. Unfortunately, the story goes, travellers were inclined to embroider or invent outlandish stories to entertain themselves and confuse the natives. There was even, it is said in one version, a competition between the patrons of the two inns as to which could produce the most eye-poppingly ludicrous creation. Hence the idea that a cock and bull story is a concocted tale or a over-elaborate lie.
High Street, Stony Stratford,
by the Cock Inn
The story is widely believed in Stony Stratford and is a source of civic pride. Step warily if you ever go there; do not suggest the tale is untrue, even though there’s no evidence for it. If you are unwise enough to dispute the matter, any local who ripostes with “well, then, tell us where it really comes from then, smart-arse” will leave you in embarrassed confusion, as you won’t be able to supply an altogether satisfactory answer.
The experts note a French expression, coq-à-l’âne, which appears these days in phrases such as passer du coq à l’âne, literally to go from the cock to the ass, but figuratively to jump from one subject to another (in older French, to tell a satirical story or an incoherent one). This meaning is said to have come about through a satirical poem of 1531 by Clément Marot with the title Epistre du Coq en l’Asne (the epistle of the cock to the donkey), though the phrase itself is two centuries older. Coq-à-l’âne was taken into Scots in the early seventeenth century as cockalane, a satire or a disconnected or rambling story.
The suggestion is that some similar story once existed in English, akin to one of Aesop’s fables, in which a cock communicated with a bull rather than a donkey. Nobody, however, has been able to discover what it might have been. Another idea is that the French phrase was borrowed in partial translation with donkey changed to bull for some reason.