Via Avva comes this Guardian piece by John Simpson, chief editor of the OED, who picks his favourite words with unusual origins. I myself particularly like #8:

to curry favour is a common idiom which embraces two linguistic ‘fossils’ as well as a cultural misunderstanding. The ‘currying’ here does not refer to the addition of spices to a dish but to the act of rubbing down a horse with a brush or comb. The idiom derives from the French ‘estriller fauvel’, ‘to curry the chestnut horse’, the horse in question, Fauvel, being a character in the French tale the ‘Roman de Fauvel’ (1310). In the story Fauvel, like Reynard the Fox, represents hypocrisy and duplicity. In English the unfamiliar ‘Fauvel’ was gradually replaced by the similar-sounding ‘favour’ in an idiom that came to mean ‘to seek to win favour, to ingratiate oneself’. As is the case with many fossilized idioms, the fact that the transformation of ‘Favel’ to ‘favour’ made nonsense of the verb ‘curry’ in the context did nothing to deter usage.

It’s interesting to learn that hobbit “has since turned up in one of those 19th-century folklore journals, in a list of long-forgotten words for fairy-folk or little people”; when will they get around to adding this to the online OED entry?


  1. I note that the hobbit entry (from 1976) has still not been updated.

  2. There’s a typo in it, too. For kaduk read kuduk.

  3. Because the Denham Tracts use of hobbit clearly has a different etymology (and never mind Tolkien’s fictional etymology, he invented the word), it really should be a separate OED entry. However, a word that appears only once in the known corpus of English generally doesn’t make it into the OED these days

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