One of the things I love about my wife is her tendency to ask random questions about language. Last night she suddenly said “Where does Cockney come from?” I said something like “I used to know, I think, or at least I looked it up, but that was a long time ago…” So I looked it up again, and discovered that the OED entry, updated as recently as September 2019, tells an interestingly tangled tale:

Etymology: In sense A. 1 [“The egg of a domestic fowl”] < cock n.¹ + egg n. (see α. forms at egg n.), although the medial syllable is difficult to explain: it may show *coken as a genitive plural form of cock n.¹ (although this noun usually shows strong rather than weak inflections); a facetious blend with chicken n. is perhaps thinkable; it is also possible that the n results from a variant of α. forms at egg n. with metanalysis, i.e. *ney, and that the vowel preceding it is an epenthetic development; analogical influence from pigsney n. [“A specially cherished or beloved girl or woman, a sweetheart.”] is perhaps also possible. Compare later cock’s egg n. at cock n.¹ and int. Compounds 2.

Sense A. 2 [“A spoilt or pampered person, esp. a child”] (and hence ultimately all later senses) probably shows a semantic development from sense A. 1, although the details cannot be traced in detail, and some have questioned the plausibility of such a development. Alternatively, senses A. 1 and A. 2 may show unrelated words, although alternative explanations for the origin of the word in sense A. 2 are variously problematic.

The identification of the second element (in sense A. 1) as egg n. appears to be confirmed by the following (apparently isolated) instance of a form showing β. forms at egg n.:

1598 J. Florio Worlde of WordesCaccherelli, cacklings of hens; also egs [1611 egges], as we say cockanegs.

It is not entirely clear whether use in sense A. 1 developed from an actual folk belief that cockerels in fact laid (small, malformed, or poor quality) eggs, or whether the reference to the male bird was entirely facetious. Compare also (later) cock’s egg n. at cock n.¹ and int. Compounds 2, and especially quot. ?1527 for cock’s egg n. at cock n.¹ and int. Compounds 2, which refers directly to the widespread story that the mythical cockatrice was hatched from a cockerel’s egg (see cockatrice n.). Compare also German (regional) Hahnenei, lit. ‘cockerel’s egg’, in sense ‘malformed egg’, also (probably with reference to the mythical cockatrice) ‘anything wonderful or unbelievable’; however, this German word may well have arisen from (facetious) alteration or misapprehension of Hühnerei hen’s egg ( < Huhn hen).

Sense A. 2 may have arisen from a perception of a pampered child as a ‘nestling’ or perhaps as a weakling (compare nestle-cock n.), or perhaps simply arose from use of a term for a ‘little egg’ as a term of affection; there may also have been some association with cocker v.¹, which sometimes occurs in close proximity to uses of this word in sense A. 2. Sense A. 3 [“A person from a town or city, as contrasted with inhabitants of rural areas, and typically characterized as delicate, pampered, feeble, or affected”] probably developed in turn from A. 2, and then sense A. 4 [“A native of London, esp. a working-class person from the East End of London”] simply shows narrowing from A. 3. With the semantic transfer from egg to person perhaps compare modern French use of coco, a child’s term for an egg ( < coque eggshell: see coque n.), as a term of affection for a person, and hence also (by antiphrasis) as a term for a person one disfavours. Although only attested in modern use, these may be related to post-classical Latin coconellus, cucunellus, which occur in the 15th cent. as equivalents of the English word in sense A. 2 (although the Latin forms may alternatively show derivatives from an imitative base corresponding to the probable imitative base of cocker v.¹ and cock v.³):

▸ 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum (Harl. 221) 281 Kokeney, carinutus, coconellus, vel cucunellus; et hec duo nomina sunt ficta, et derisorie dicta; delicius.

A number of other etymologies have been suggested for sense A. 2 and subsequent senses. Probably the most plausible of these suggests a borrowing from Old French, Middle French coquin person of low social status, beggar, hanger-on (of uncertain origin) or a related word, perhaps specifically (in an attempt to account for the ending of the English word) the past participles coquiné or acoquiné of the derived verbs coquiner or (16th-cent.) acoquiner. However, this explanation encounters formal difficulties, does not offer an entirely satisfactory semantic explanation (the assumed etymological connection of these words with classical Latin coquīna kitchen is very doubtful, and uses denoting an idler or kitchen hanger-on first appear late in French), and additionally none of these words appear to be attested in Anglo-Norman.

Although previously often assumed to be related (see especially Cockneyland n. 1), there is probably no etymological connection with Cockaigne n.

The etymology suggested (for use in sense A. 4a) in the following was probably only ever intended facetiously:

1617 J. Minsheu Ἡγεμὼν είς τὰς γλῶσσας: Ductor in Linguas (at cited word) A Cockney or Cockny, applied only to one borne within the sound of Bow-bell, that is, within the City of London, which tearme came first out of this tale: That a Cittizens sonne riding with his father..into the Country..asked, when he heard a horse neigh, what the horse did his father answered, the horse doth neigh; riding farther he heard a cocke crow, and said doth the cocke neigh too? and therfore Cockney or Cocknie, by inuersion thus: incock, q. incoctus i. raw or vnripe in Country-mens affaires.

I had no idea the modern sense went back as far as 1571 (J. Bridges Serm. Paules Crosse 104 We are thorough out all the Realme called cockneys that are borne in London, or in the sounde of Bow bell). I am quite taken with the phrase King of Cockneys, “now historical and rare (apparently) a Master of the Revels formerly chosen by the students at Lincoln’s Inn to preside over festivities on Childermas Day (28 December),” but I’m not clear on whether “(apparently)” refers to the rarity or the definition. The first citation:

1519 in W. P. Baildon Black Bks. (Rec. Soc. Lincoln’s Inn) (1897) I. 190 Item, that the Kyng of Cokneys ouer Childermas Day sytt and haue due service..and that he and his Marshall, Buttler, and Constable Marshall, haue ther laufull and honeste comaundementes..and that the seid Kyng of Cokneys, ne none of his officers, medyll neyther in the buttry nor in the Stuard of Cristmas is office.

And my favorite citation, under 4. b. “The dialect or accent typical of London Cockneys”:

1812 M. Edgeworth Absentee i, in Tales Fashionable Life V. 203 ‘You cawnt conceive the peens she teekes to talk of the teebles and cheers, and to thank Q, and, with so much teeste, to speak pure English,’ said Mrs. Dareville. ‘Pure cockney, you mean,’ said lady Langdale.


  1. Arthur Loaf says

    I dimly recall an explanation that, London’s working class being seen as widely criminal and rebellious, an honest or law-abiding one was as rare as a cock’s egg: so rare as to be impossible to find.

    It reads to me like a line from a Hogarth caption or an early newspaper. As a cockney by ancestry, I like the idea. But I can’t find any quote like that with a quick Google. And it doesn’t really fit to use something impossibly rare to describe people more often feared as a teeming mass.

  2. there is probably no etymological connection with Cockaigne n.

    I’m pretty sure Edwardian Londoners thought there was.

    Skies that rain cheese.

  3. Yes, the OED covers that s.v. Cockaigne:

    2. humorous. With punning allusion to cockney n. 4: London, esp. as the (frequently idealized) realm of Cockneys; Cockneydom.
    In quot. 1818 used depreciatively in connection with Leigh Hunt; see Cockney school n. at cockney n. and adj. Compounds 2.

    1818 Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. May 196/2 You [sc. Leigh Hunt] conduct yourself..with a stateliness and hauteur that may be considered, by the youthful nobility of Cockaigne, a perfect model of monarchical dignity, but is, in fact, risibly characteristic of your plebeian origin and education.
    1824 Hist. Gaming Houses 48 in Compl. Hist. Murder Mr. Weare This system of carried on to a considerable degree of refinement at the high-flying Hells in the Western parts of Cockaigne—i. e. London.
    1881 Athenæum 30 July 152/1 The writer is evidently a Cockney, accustomed to the ways and feeling of Cockaigne.
    1913 Golden Cross Jrnl. Mar. 6/2 They heaped upon the furious Burgundian all the expressions of ridicule in which the wit of Cockaigne (London) is so immemorially rich.
    2013 P. Kildea B. Britten iv. 341 The musicians and administrators then madly refashioning Cockaigne from the ruins of London.

    Coˈckaigner n. rare a Londoner; spec. a Cockney; cf. sense 2.

    1842 Tait’s Edinb. Mag. Apr. 239/2 Steaming with the fragrance of what that unfortunate cockaigner, Johnny Keats, calls ‘lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon’, and all the other sugary nutriments of babyish existence.
    1879 Spectator 26 July 946/1 A comfortable old Cockaigner, placidly regarding my own little home at North-Bitton-on-Silverstreak as the prettiest and most comfortable in the world.
    1930 Times of India 3 Oct. 6/7 The heart of the Cockaigner beats sound.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Huhn hen

    No; Huhn n. “chicken”, Henne f. “hen”. While I’m at it, Hahn m. “cock/rooster”.

  5. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish m hane, f høne, epicene høns. The latter originally neuter (et høns, hønset, flere høns, alle hønsene) but now collective, the singular obsolete.

    (Danish does not distinguish common and neuter in the plural, so høns doesn’t feel like a neuter word).

  6. No; Huhn n. “chicken”

    That’s definition 1a (“Haushuhn”) in the Duden Deutsches Universalwörterbuch. 1b is “Henne”. My impression is that 1b is more common. “Henne” sounds pedantic.

  7. I’m rooting for DM in this squabble. C’mon, David — Beat back die Huhn.

  8. Wiktionary: “The singular Huhn is generally taken to mean a female chicken, whereas the plural Hühner may include roosters.”

  9. David Marjanović says

    “Henne” sounds pedantic.

    Huh, another regional difference. My dialect even lacks Huhn entirely.

    Of course the reason is the same – chickens are hens by default…

  10. Stu Clayton says

    I agree with DM and ulr. There are slightly different conventions for referring to chickens in Germany German, leaving numerically smaller dialects aside. Which word is used depends on sex as well as on whether they’re dead or alive.

    At a butcher’s or in a supermarket, it’s unlikely that you will hear (or see on a label) a dead chicken referred to as a Henne instead of just a Huhn. One reason for that is that almost all chickens that end up dead in a store are of the female persuasion anyway. As ulr “suggests”, it would be pedantic to topicalize their tits. They are non-binary.

    Male chicks are put into a shredder, so they never grow up into chicken jalfrezi. Of course females are generally nicer than males, so it’s not surprising. There are now European laws intended to stop this practice.

    Outside of these contexts, Henne is used when unavoidable. Huhn is a noun for chickens that functions like the “he” pronoun for philosophers.

  11. David Marjanović says


  12. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    FWIW, et høns (das Huhn) as something you buy (or use) is long obsolete, but there are attestations from old cookbooks. And “chicken” meat is marketed as kylling, even though most of it is probably from post-laying hens. (Though they have started to sell hanekylling as well, and those probably never laid eggs in their short lives).

    (I don’t know where the -s comes from, it was there in ON already. But to a modern Dane it almost feels like an English plural, since its only used of plural chickens).

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    re the “s”, the ON word seems to be derived from the related diminutive. From Kroonen, Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Brill: 2013):
    *hōniz- n. ‘hen, fowl’ – OS hon n. ‘hen’, Du. hoen c. ‘id.’, OHG huon n. ‘id.’, G Huhn n. ‘id.’ (DRV).
    A vrddhi-derivative from *hanan- (q.v.). The WGm. languages point to *honaz, pl. *honiziz (quasi f> IE *kehzn-os, pl. *kehzn-es-es). ON hamsn, Far. hesn, Elfd. yons ‘liens, poultry’ points to a diminutive *honis-ina-, a formation with stem variant in *-s that apparently was not affected by Verner’s law.

  14. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Well, the entry for høns in ODS was written in 1926, and it gives all of hœns, hœsn, hœnsn for ON — but not ON hamsn. That looks a bit out of place in the chain from *honis-ina to Fø hesn and Da høns.

    But anyway it looks like the singular use of et høns may have been a Danish specialty. I don’t know how a diminutive in PG becomes a plural form in ON, but clearly the -s was not originally at the end of the word. (There seems to have been a lot of metathesis on the way from PIE. Is Kroonen’s *kehzn- what other authors write as *keHsn-? Wiktionary has *keh₂n- = ‘sing’ with no s/z in sight).

    ( was used in the Danish car registration system for cars registered for use on the Faroes. A bilingual abbreviation: Færøerne = róyar).

  15. David Marjanović says

    I think hz is an OCR error for h₂.

  16. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    OCR — that makes sense. A very consistent OCR since it does it for two out of two occurrences. But it makes the other forms less certain too. Can hamsn be an error for hœnsn?

  17. Male chicks are put into a shredder, so they never grow up into chicken jalfrezi
    But NB that “fried chicken” is (Brat)hähnchen (or Hendl in Bavaria), even if the actual chicken you eat never was or had a cock.

  18. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Well, if you’re going to feed a chicken and eat it before it’s fully grown, you might as well expend the feed on a male. Then keep the females for eggs. I think there was an implication in earlier days that hanekyllinger meant exactly that, juvenile birds and not little fluffy-yellow things. And as I said above, it’s coming back in Denmark, German fluff-shredders notwithstanding.

    Cf. the “young roosters” being roasted in Hans Christian Andersen’s Klods-Hans (“Blockhead Hans”). (I was so young when I first heard it that literal birds being roasted was the only possible interpretation, and not until reading WP today did I realize it could allude to the cocky young suitors).

  19. And then there is the notorious Halver Hahn

  20. Stu Clayton says

    As a Gericht it’s even gerichtsnotorisch:

    Wegen der Verwechslungsmöglichkeit mit einem halben Brathähnchen bietet das Gericht immer wieder Anlass für Anekdoten über irritierte Gäste, die vermeintlich Geflügel bestellt haben und stattdessen ein Käsebrötchen erhalten.[6][7] Die vertragsrechtliche Bewertung eines solchen Inhaltsirrtums dient mitunter als Übungsfall für Rechtsberufe.[6][8][9]

    The correct form in Kölsch is halve Hahn.

  21. chicken you eat never was or had a cock

    Cocks don’t have cocks: they do the “cloacal kiss”, where the cloaca > Latin id. ‘sewer’ carries it all: excrement, urine-equivalent (based on uric acid rather than urea, so it’s white and insoluble) and semen.

    Well, if you’re going to feed a chicken and eat it before it’s fully grown, you might as well expend the feed on a male. Then keep the females for eggs.

    Laying hens and eating hens (broilers in the U.S.) are different breeds, like milk and meat cattle; factory-farmed broilers are typically slaughtered at six weeks or less, free-range organic chickens at about 14 weeks, since growth is not artificially stimulated. Layers are typically exhausted after 12 months of laying and are then either turned into processed chicken or soup, or are force-moulted (malnourished to the point where they lose their feathers), after which they can undergo a second egg-laying cycle. At that point they are typically not further usable.

  22. Cocks don’t have cocks
    Next thing you tell me is that dicks don’t have dicks. 😉
    (But thanks for the biology lesson; if I ever knew that, I had forgotten.)

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