Monday, 24 October 2011

Currying Favour and Curried Horses

It's a little odd that even at the finest of Indian restaurants you can't order a curried favour. In fact, currying favour gets odder the more you look at the phrase. That's because favour isn't favour. It's a horse.

Once upon a time, six or seven hundred years ago there was a French allegorical poem called the Roman de Fauvel. It's about a horse called Fauvel who leaves his stable, moves into the biggest room in his master's house, and installs a custom made hayrack.

The point of the allegory is that the second the horse appears to be in charge everybody suddenly wants to be his friend. People come from far and wide to groom Fauvel.

For some reason this story was immensely popular and got translated into English, with the name Fauvel unchanged. However, the English word for grooming a horse was currying. It's a verb that is, apparently, still used in equestrian circles*. Thus a phrase developed. Anybody who sycophantically went round trying to be nice to a lord was said to be currying fauvel.

However, once the old French allegory had been forgotten, the idea of currying fauvel started to look rather odd. What the hell was a fauvel? Nobody knew any more.

Confusion about the phrase lasted until 1560 when the Geneva Bible came up with this line:

He thoght by this meanes to courry fauour with the worlde

It makes sense. Nobody knew what a fauvel was, but everybody knew that a sycophant wants a favour. So every since then favours have been curried and patronage has been vindalooed.

And here is the original favour being curried.

*I have never moved in equestrian circles myself. I can't seem to maintain a stable relationship.

P.S. There's an article about my book, The Etymologicon, in today's Sun.


  1. That is a terrible joke. In fact it's so bad I've had to post it on facebook.
    (With a link back to this blog of course)

  2. I'm afraid it's older than the hills, and I cannot saddle myself with the credit.

  3. I suspect this is not the best place to leave this comment. I was reading The Etymologicon this past weekend, with three friends in the room. I was asked to leave because my constant laughter was distracting. Eventually two of them had to see for themselves what was so funny. It only took two pages to decide they would be buying it as well. Great read!

  4. Now I'm curious to know, Saagar, where you got hold of an advanced copy. I had five but four of them have already been given away. However, I've just discovered that it's out on Kindle today, but it wasn't over the weekend.

  5. So it's a year and a few months later, and I just now stumbled upon this. While reading a novel the phrase "curried the horses" kept recurring. Contextually I understood it to mean tend to or rub down, but I became curious about the expression. I love etymology, so thanks for both the curiosity-satisfying post and, in advance, the book I am sure to enjoy.