When a cock and a bull make history

I was wondering the other day what would be the origin of the expression “cock and bull story”. I checked the Online Etymological Dictionary, which is supposed to compile entries from all known etymological lexicons, but I was disappointed with the harvest:

“Cock-and-bull is first recorded 1620s, perhaps an allusion to Aesop’s fables, with their incredible talking animals, or to a particular story, now forgotten. French has parallel expression coq-à-l’âne.”

Well, even a child would have made this inference. Forgotten story? Aesop’s fables? I’m not quite sure. Trying to dig deeper, I reached another attempt, this time more imaginative:

There are competing theories about the origins of “cock and bull.” One source claims that the phrase is a corruption of “a concocted and bully story,” with “bully” being a further corruption of the Danish bullen, which means exaggerated.

Nonsense, say other sources. The Phrase Finder suggests the phrase came about when coaches would carry travelers to one of two inns that were close to each other on the old London Road at Stony Stratford near Buckinghamshire, England. Rivalries arose between the groups of travelers who favored one inn over the other, and boastful tales were exchanged. The names of the two inns? The Cock and the Bull, of course.

The Word Detective passes along a similar story involving just one inn, the Cock and Bull, but finds it doubtful. The more likely explanation, Word Detective ventures, is that the expression refers to old fables featuring talking animals, a notion that the French “cock to donkey” tends to corroborate. We’ve seen similar usages arise in our own time, leading me to think Word Detective has it right and that alternative theories are not just cock and bull stories but–dare I say it?–mickey mouse. (straightdope.com)

Having gone past inns and taverns, I find myself in the same cul-de-sac: if it’s fables, then were are they? Is there really a lost story? I wouldn’t have written this post had I not found something that seems to go somewhere. It is about an ex eventu political prophecy, namely one that is made after the event. When? Why, in the Middle Ages, of course! And it goes something like this:

Amodo de tauro taceo, gallo tibi psallo

Gallum de Bruto nosces genitum fore scuto

In mundo talis nullus gallus volat alis

Now I am silent about the bull, I sing to you of the cock

You will know the Cock, of the line of Brutus, by his shield.

Such a cock never spread his wings in the world. 

Any prophecy needs a key. For this one, here it is: the cock is Edward the Black Prince of Wales, the bull is his father, king Edward III of England and Brutus is the mythical founder of the British people. Well, this last bit was common knowledge in the 14th century and beyond.

These verses were written before 1376 but I wasn’t able to find out the deep significance of the bestiary in this context. A father-son relationship doesn’t readily echo that between a bull and a cock, does it? Still, these three verses may have our answer because I feel that it is this sort of nonsense prophecy (the Black prince-cock died before his father and frustrated everyone’s plans and expectations) that may be at the root of the famous expression. Besides, an unfulfilled prophecy is a non sequitur and this is exactly what cock and bull means. And it’s only natural, isn’t it, that a bull outlives a cock. Whoever came up with this imagery was the worst naturalist.

How the English bull would have metamorphosed into a French donkey (âne), I don’t know but I suspect it might have something to do with French negative propaganda during the Hundred Years War. Who knows? Aesop’s fable of the Ass, the Cock and the Lion isn’t too enlightening.

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