To Curry Favour


My sister is forever asking why we say things the way we do. She is asking about our idioms and expressions. Partly because she misheard them(being very deaf) but also because they do not seem to make any sense to her when she examines them word for word.

I have a fondness for the familiar, I do not mind so very much clichés and proverbs. I confess to a liking for idioms and sayings. They serve a purpose, they are familiar and therefore oddly comforting at times. They serve as shorthand, hash tags, to universal life.

They also appeal to me because many of them break the rules of grammar and of sense. Tiny rebels against organized language. They can be nonsensical and – get away with it – what’s not to like?

What is an idiom?As this is a blog about words I give the Oxford Dictionary meaning of the word that pertains to the subject. There are other meanings.

Idiom: a form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase etc peculiar to a person or language: a phrase etc which is understood by speakers of a particular language despite its meaning not being predictable from that of the separate words.

Origin: Idios;  Greek,  idiousthai    make one’s own ( when applied to  a perculiar to self form of language),

In other words Idioms are not to be taken literally. The whole expression has very little to do with the individual words and we who grow up in the language accept this and just use the shape for the meaning until someone says why do we say that? Idioms though are difficult to understand for those coming to the language as newbies.

I am going in the next few months to explore some of our idioms and sayings. Many make no discernible sense, standing almost as a metaphor now, yet they did make sense once and have traveled along the path of changing vocabulary, spelling, mispronunciation and occupations until we end uttering them and knowing what they mean despite it all.

Or do we?

Some have a simple history and some travel more convoluted routes.

To curry favour:

 To seek to favour or ingratiate oneself (with a person) by flattery etc.

To seek to win (goodwill, friends etc) by flattery etc

We know what it means but how does it mean i.?

Nothing to do with Indian dishes. The horse minded amongst us will maybe consider horses, as grooming a horse is often referred to as‘currying’. So not the kitchen but the stable, but still where does the whole expression comes from.

Way back in 1310, what a long time ago! there was a French poem, satirical and popular for hundreds of years, oh if we could all write something with that longevity! The name of this work of art  Roman de Fauvel’.

Fauvel was a centaur. Centaurs were featured in Greek myths as strange hybrid creatures both man and horse.

Centaur: creature with head arms and torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse.
Origin: Greek,   kentauros referring to a people of Thessaly who were expert horsemen.


This Fauvel was cunning and an extremely dangerous beastie. In the satire he was representing hypocrisy and deceit. If you didn’t want the breathe knocked out of you,

you gentled him,
made nice to him
you curried Favual, so he wouldn’t turn nasty.

Mind, if he was deceitful and hypocritical I wouldn’t place any bets on it working out long term:)

Yeah, well, favour?

Mispronunciation, misspelling, mistranslated, mis whatever.

Origin: Old French:  estriller fauvel, to rub down, groom a chestnut horse

Fauvel:   French,   fallow coloured.

So there it is: a mixture of ancient Greek mythology, Old French vocabulary, a satire penned in 1310, a journey across the sea to these islands to be slightly mangled and changed over time to what we have now. What we understand it to mean is correct. Once long ago it also made sense.


2 thoughts on “To Curry Favour

  1. alberta says:

    wouldn’t it be great to think our works would be studied in another few centuries!

  2. Alberta, what an interesting post! I studied Le Roman Dee Fauvel in grad school, but I never knew it gave rise to that expression. Fascinating.

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