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By the great horn spoon

Q From Bart O'Brien: A phrase my grandfather often used was by the great horned spoon or possibly by the great horn spoon. My family has no idea if he made it up or it was a colloquialism. It may help to know that his family came to the U.S. from Clare, Ireland, in the mid-1870s. The family settled in south central New York State, within a few miles of the Pennsylvania border. Can you find out where it comes from?

A The form of the phrase that was most common in its earliest recorded days was your second one: by the great horn spoon. It was at one time a fairly common American oath or, at least, a way to make some statement sound emphatic. The first recorded example is in a song which appeared in the American National Songbook of 1842 under the title French Claim, “As sung by Mr Andrews at the Tremont Theatre”:

The more he thought on’t it the madder he grew,
Until he vowed by the great horn spoon,
Unless they did the thing that was right,
He’d give them a licking, and that pretty soon.

There are other examples in American literature through the nineteenth century, many of them associated with the sea, as here in an article from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of September 1880: “The two ends are brought together, and the net pursed up. “Bagged, by the Great Horn Spoon!” cries an excited shareholder; and they go to dipping the fish out with a scoop-net, and loading the dory as full as it will hold”. Another example, more famous, is from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, The Rhyme of the Three Captains:

The skipper peered beneath his palm and swore
by the Great Horn Spoon:
“ ’Fore Gad, the Chaplain of the Fleet would bless
my picaroon!”
[picaroon = a pirate ship]

So far so good. Now here’s the tricky bit: where does it come from?

A horn spoon, of course, is just a spoon made from cow’s horn. There are tantalising hints that horn spoons might have links with Scottish folklore in some way, though exactly how is far from clear. The saying is sometimes associated with the California Gold Rush, mainly through a children’s book of 1963 by Sid Fleischman called By The Great Horn Spoon. That book has introduced the phrase to generations of American schoolchildren, and is now pretty much the only work in which anyone ever encounters it. Even though many prospectors (including those in the book) reached the gold fields by sea around Cape Horn, the phrase has no connection with that wild and dangerous area of the South Atlantic.

My sources are completely silent on the origins of the saying, so I turned to the experts at the American Dialect Society. No very clear consensus emerged (they are almost, but not quite, as much in the dark as the rest of us). The seafaring connections were thought to be significant, possibly indicating an oath sworn by the Big Dipper or Little Dipper (respectively Ursa Major, also called the Plough, and Ursa Minor, or the Little Bear), both of them being important constellations for navigation in northern latitudes. It is certain that horn is an old Scottish name for Ursa Minor and a dipper, of course, is really just a big spoon. I’ve found it said as fact that the phrase does indeed refer to the Big Dipper.

That sounds the most likely explanation, even though its early history is unknown and there are some loose ends in the story.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Apr. 2002

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Last modified: 13 April 2002.