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We are most likely nowadays to encounter this as a family name. Like Baker, Glover, Carter, Miller, Potter, Smith and many others, it was originally taken from an occupation.

A thousand years ago, a catchpole was a tax gatherer. Unlike modern tax collectors, a medieval tax gatherer worked on a contract system called tax farming. He paid a lump sum to be authorised to collect taxes from a given area or group of people; anything he collected beyond this was profit. There were few constraints on how much he actually collected or the methods he employed.

Later, the catchpole became an officer of the court, a subordinate of the bailiff. He was mainly responsible for collecting debts and his methods were scarcely an improvement on those of the tax gatherer. A person he arrested for debt was commonly stripped of everything that might be of value and imprisoned until he could pay the debt. This continued into the nineteenth century:

In the city of London, in two contiguous thoroughfares — the shabbiest, dingiest, poorest of their class — there are two Houses of Poverty. To the first, entrance is involuntary, and residence in it compulsory. You are brought there by a catchpole, and kept there under lock and key until your creditors are paid, or till you have suffered the purgatory of an Insolvent Court remand. This house is the Debtors’ Prison of Whitecross Street.

Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859.

You will appreciate that catchpoles were unpopular.

The origin of the name was obscure to people in the centuries before etymology became the subject of scholarly study. A story grew up that it was correctly catchpoll, where poll is an old term for the head. It has also been asserted that the catchpole seized people around the neck with a device rather like a shepherd’s crook. This story has become wildly elaborated in some descriptions:

The ‘catchpole’ usually consisted of an eight foot wooden pole with some sort of noose or barbed fork on one end. Law enforcement officers (usually the Sheriff) would place the noose around the neck of the criminal and use it to lead them around and so forth.

Wikipedia article on catchpole (accessed 27 Feb. 2013).

No. A device rather like this and called a catch pole can be used to restrain animals, but that wasn’t the source of the name. Nor is the origin the similar long hooked pole with which vaudeville and music-hall managers dragged unsuccessful performers off the stage. That was called getting the hook.

But there’s no puzzle about the origin. A catchpole is figuratively a chicken-chaser. It’s a mixture of Old English (cace-, catch) and medieval Latin (pullus, a chick). The idea behind it was that people who owed tax were as difficult to catch as farmyard fowls.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Apr. 2013

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 6 April 2013.