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Spatchcock

Q From Bob Arnold, USA: We are indeed separated by a common language! A report on the BBC Web site on 31 May about the European Community included this: “With 25 countries and 455 million people to govern, it simply isn’t enough to spatchcock together a bunch of rules at short notice.” Could you enlighten me about spatchcock?

A To spatchcock in this figurative sense is indeed mainly British. It means to stuff things together inappropriately, to interpolate or insert something in a forced or incongruous manner. Another example, from the Independent newspaper in 2003, will help to give the idea: “But far from being some grand, thoughtful programme, it was only a spatchcock of improvisation and platitude.”

Even in Britain, the word is more likely to turn up in its much older meaning of a chicken split open down the middle, the backbone removed, then dressed and roasted or grilled. Traditionally, the bird was flattened, with wings outstretched — butterflied is another term sometimes used. The Oxford Companion to Food says that it was “met with in cookery books of the 18th and 19th centuries, and revived towards the end of the 20th century”. In modern use the term has been applied more widely by cooks to a pigeon, quail or other bird as well as to a chicken. But online references to the term, from Australia especially, suggest that for some people a spatchcock is just a young chicken, with no implication of cooking it any special way.

One advantage of spatchcocking is that the bird can be prepared and cooked quickly. In 1895, a newspaper in Ohio wrote about travelling in Egypt: “When the natives in charge of a caravansary spied an approaching caravan, they instantly rushed out, caught some fowls, wrung their necks, and an hour later served them, scarce dead, to the travelers; hence the name spatchcock.” The writer is referring to the old idea that the term is an abbreviation of dispatch cock, a method of cooking a chicken quickly, with dispatch. Captain Francis Grose described it like that in his 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Spatch cock, abbreviation of a dispatch cock, an Irish dish upon any sudden occasion. It is a hen just killed from the roost, or yard, and immediately skinned, split, and broiled.”

But this is now not believed by the experts. There’s an older term, spitchcock, to prepare an eel by cutting it into short pieces, dressing it with bread-crumbs and chopped herbs, and broiling or frying it. This is too close in form to be an accident, which suggests that the cock ending in spatchcock might not refer to a chicken. But nobody has been able to delve any deeper into the origin of either word and it’s one of those head-scratching terms that has to await some discovery in an old book to make sense of it.

What is also mysterious is how the culinary term came to refer to a forced or inappropriate insertion. The oldest case I can find is one also mentioned by Eric Partridge. It was in the Times of 11 October 1901, reporting a speech by Sir Redvers Buller about an incident in the South African War: “I therefore spatchcocked into the middle of that telegram a sentence in which I suggested it would be necessary to surrender.” Partridge says it was originally military jargon. In 1910, in A Handbook of the Boer War, Wyndham Tufnell added a footnote to his report of Buller’s speech: “He probably meant ‘sandwiched’”. He might have done, but he may instead have been thinking of doing something quickly or in haste, perhaps linked with the fact that the telegram was indeed a dispatch (in the sense of a report) and so linking it to dispatch cock. We just don’t know.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Jul. 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 July 2005.