According to Merriam-Webster, the term “rooster” originated in the United States in the mid- or late-18th century as a euphemism to avoid the sexual connotation of the word “cock.” The noun is derived from “roosting,” the bird’s habit of perching aloft to sleep at night.
The appearance of “rooster” in the written record signals a cultural and linguistic shift as Americans became more persnickety when speaking about their bodies and carnal natures. “Cock” was no longer acceptable for genteel and pious New Worlders in the late 18th century because of its close association to the male sexual organ. In the early 19th century a religious revival of born-again Christianity swept the United States. During this time, the proverbial axe came down on any vulgar associations to a phallus:
- cockhorse – riding horse
- haycock – haystack
- weathercock – weathervane
- shuttlecock – birdie
- drain cock/stop cock – drain valve
Even suggestive surnames were subject to this lingual henpecking party. For hundreds of years, family names suggested their history with the domesticated fowl, like Hitchcock, Handcock, Wilcox, and Alcox. The father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, changed his last name from Alcock to Alcott in the early 19th century out of “professional concerns” during his teaching career.
The Bird and The Organ
The word “cock” is from Old English cocc meaning “male bird” and appears to be of German origin. Cocken and cocky were Old English slang for “one who swaggers or struts like a cock.” By the 17th century, “cock” was a general term for a “fellow, man, or chap,” as in “an old cock.” Age-old idioms and classifiers that include “cock” abound:
- cock one’s hat – an aggressive or fighting attitude
- cocked ear – to listen carefully
- cock of the walk – a dominating attitude
- cocksure – arrogantly confident
- cock and bull story – an unbelievable tale
- cockpit – cock-fighting ring
- gamecock – hell-rooster, hell-kite; a fierce fighter
- cocker-spaniel – a dog bred to flush woodcocks
- cocktail – the high standing tail of a bird; docked tail of a pedigree horse; analogous for an alcoholic beverage in high society
- billycock – a type of felt hat similar to a derby; from bullycock – to cock one’s hat in a swashbuckling fashion
The first two lines of the popular English nursery rhyme “Cock a doodle do!” first appeared in 1606 in a murder pamphlet (lurid accounts of gruesome murders, confessions, and executions, similar to our own genre of “True Crime” detective stories). The full rhyme was recorded in London in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1776:
Cock a doodle do!
My dame has lost her shoe,
My master’s lost his fiddlestick,
And knows not what to do.
The earliest allusions to the penis is pillicock, attested from the early 14th century in the Anglo-Irish The Kildare Lyrics, a poem complaining of the effects of old age:
“Y ne mai no more of loue done; Mi pilkoc pisseþ on mi schone” (I may no longer make love, my cock pisses on my shoe).
There’s also Middle English fide-cok, where fid means “a peg or plug.”
The reasons why “cock” became so closely associated with “penis” are numerous but speculative at best. The common traits of “rising in the morning” and the euphemistic “choking the chicken” for masturbation are humorous but not definitive. The rooster’s aggressiveness, its virility, the upright curvature of its neck with hackles that flare when excited, not to mention its pendulous wattles, are some of the ideas people have asserted for the cultural connection. Regardless, it’s a lot of conjecture considering a cock doesn’t even have a penis. (Through testes located high up in the body, sperm transfer occurs by cloacal contact between the cockerel and the hen known as the “cloacal kiss.”)
No matter how sheepish Americans might be, the word “cock” has been synonymous with “penis” for a very long time. Though “rooster” is a perfectly fine word, the original intent to disappear “cock” is prudish hogwash. The British, with a clearer grasp on context, still use the word without offense or fear of being vulgar. In the end, the animal has crossed with our culture to become not only an enduring symbol of our farming past but continues to be one of our most valued sources of sustenance. Like pigs, pussies, and asses, cocks also provide a wealth of reflections on our own undeniable human behavior.
If you enjoyed this bit of history, you may also enjoy learning about (NSFW) expletive infixations, the strange adjectival order of “Big Bad Wolf,” or why some words become fossilized!
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