This satisfyingly consonant-laden word has been in my vocabulary for years—it refers to a fowl prepared by splitting and grilling—and it was a surprise to me, when I was asked where it came from, not to find it in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. Alan Davidson’s wonderful Penguin Companion to Food (which I wrote about here) shed some light, calling it a culinary term “met in cookery books of the 18th and 19th centuries, and revived towards the end of the 20th century”; apparently M-W has not caught up with the revival yet. The OED used to approve of Grose‘s delightful etymology: “abbreviation of a dispatch cock, an Irish dish upon any sudden occasion. It is a hen just killed from the roost, or yard, and immediately skinned, split, and broiled.” But The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1996), disappointingly, rejects this for “of unkn. orig.; cf. spitchcock (XVI) eel cut into short pieces, dressed, and cooked,” and the American Heritage concurs: “Perhaps alteration of spitchcock, a way of cooking an eel.” Spoilsports!


  1. SPATCHCOCK:I dothe like the name dispatch cock, when unannounced bodies from beyond high come to visit and expect grub, one would always send the fleetest afoot to wring neck and de-feather with blow torch the slowest bird as longer it took to be ready for devouring the longer one stayed bored.
    As many of us that failed the King’s ‘nglis’ would always lop off the front end and the rear end of any word.

  2. The only other time I have encountered this word was in Alfred Bester’s 1980 sf novel Golem-100, in the sentence “And Fido banged Gretchen spatchcock”. I took it to be an elegant synonym for “from the rear”. Seemingly not.
    Oh, bbls of laughs, Alfie.

  3. A.J.P. Crown says

    It reminds me of Shuttlecock and Battledore, which is what my grandmother used to call the game of Badminton.

  4. English needs far more words suffixed in -cock in present usage.

  5. I’ve always wondered where this word came from, too. I think I learned it because of chicken tabaka, though I didn’t find “spatchcock” in any of my English-language Russian cookbooks. It is, however, in How to Cook Everything, though author Mark Bittman refers to the technique as “spitchcock.”

  6. I assumed it to be a speciality of the Cockburn family. Though then it ought to be pronounced spatchco’.

  7. The only time I’d ever encountered the word was in Joyce’s Ulysses, chapter 9: “Why is the underplot of King Lear in which Edmund figures lifted out of Sidney’s Arcadia and spatchcocked on to a Celtic legend older than history?” I’d imagined an elaborate grafting technique … now I’m not certain what was meant. If spitting (like the adduced spitting of an eel) is the idea, that reinforces the image of attachment; on the other hand I’m intrigued by the idea that Joyce may have meant to emphasize Shakespeare’s improvisation via the sense of “dispatch cock.”
    Anyone with a better sense of the word (there seem to be many here) able to come up with a better gloss of Joyce’s sense? I’d weigh JJ’s evidence pretty heavily in the “where the word is felt to come from” scales (assuming he didn’t just crib it from Skeat’s Dictionary, of course).
    One more thing, apropos of its “satisfying consonant-ladenness”: I had the idea that Joyce had left off the first c, making it “spatchocked.” Without digging after the mss evidence I have no idea if that is me misremembering, or one of many printer’s errors in the history of Ulysses, but it would be curious if he’d either emended the word on grounds of euphony, or meant to record actual (spoken) usage of his acquaintance.

  8. Excellent question; you sent me to my well-worn copy of Gifford’s Notes for Joyce, where I found:
    “‘Spatchocked’ according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Capt. Francis Grose (1785), involves an abbreviation of ‘dispatch cook,’ an Irish dish prepared in an emergency; thus it means to insert, interpolate or sandwich (a phrase, sentence, etc.). Usually spelled ‘spatchcock.'”
    It’s “Spatchocked” in my old Modern Library edition, but apparently it’s been corrected in more recent ones, as a Google search shows. (Note “cook” for “cock” in the Grove quote; I don’t know whether the error is Gifford’s or whether he picked it up elsewhere.)

  9. Found an interesting site, if only for the comparison of Yahoo’s and Bill Gates’ pronunciations of “spatchcock.”

  10. And that site is…?

  11. A.J.P. Crown says

    So where’s the site, Codfish?

  12. A.J.P. Crown says


  13. Whoops! Tried to code it in but failed.

  14. A.J.P. Crown says

    (They’ve been sick, you know.)

  15. A.J.P. Crown says

    Who’s the yahoo trying to sound British?
    It has been said that the English will adamantly tell you that the only definition of “spatchcock” is a young chicken, no more than 6 weeks old.
    But that definition would apply to most of the chicken that’s sold today, wouldn’t it, Codfish? You’re supposed to get one that’s 12 weeks old, aren’t you?

  16. A.J.P. Crown says

    Here’s an interesting definition from there:

    Forthright’s Favorite Words
    spatchcock (spach’kok) v or n (English, probably from dispatch and cock) To insert into a text too hurriedly or inappropriately; a fowl stuffed and cooked immediately after killing. This is probably my favourite word of all time. Though there’s little use for it any more as a noun, the idea of hurriedly killing, stuffing and cooking a bird has enormous metaphorical value. As a verb, spatchcock is a term that should be picked up and used by every editor who has ever had to read a manuscript that has been prepared in such a manner.

  17. It has been said that the English will adamantly tell you that the only definition of “spatchcock” is a young chicken, no more than 6 weeks old.
    But that definition would apply to most of the chicken that’s sold today, wouldn’t it, Codfish? You’re supposed to get one that’s 12 weeks old, aren’t you?

    I think they mean cockerels, preferably younger than 6 weeks old, because their meat is tender and they are small enough (1-2 pounds) to cook quickly on a ‘cue and who needs more than a couple roosters, anyway?
    Cornish game hens and spring chickens are sold in supermarkets. They are 5-6 week old chickens (male or female, though that seems a waste of eggs to me) but I don’t trust them because regular ‘broilers’ are also about 6 weeks old and they are twice, or thrice, the size of cornishes. But I don’t trust much from the supermarket.
    We do get chickens aged 12 weeks and there’s a world of difference. I’m sure if we ate a cockerel from that farm it’d be delicious.
    Hope to raise my own sometime and bring them up to 30. Jamessal? You in?

  18. A.J.P. Crown says

    Hens are delightful animals. I like Salmon Faverolles the best, they are my favorites, but I also like Buff Orpingtons. Both give lots of eggs. We had a very charismatic Welsummer rooster who was very bright and brave, until he was attacked by a dog while defending the others. Poor Leopold, he was a lot brighter than Jussi, our Orpington rooster who was his assistant. i never thought Rhode Island Reds made great pets.

  19. Codfish: You know it, babe!
    Crown: Now you’re just showing off. And you might regret it — we will show up at your door. (By the “yahoo trying to sound British,” by the way, do you mean the sexy one? Maybe I’m being provincial, or just immature, but he sounds to me like he’s getting into it.)

  20. I like that the website for the Buff Orpingtons call them “big, friendly dual-purpose birds.”
    Now, does the “dual-purpose” mean eggs and meat or friendship and meat? Maybe there’s three purposes. Why limit?

  21. It’s a floor wax… and a desert topping!

  22. I should think that these days, a spatchcock is a bird not immediately dispatched and then dressed and flattened but a refrigerated or frozen fowl. Spatchcocking permits the cooking or smoking of a bird in half the time, rubbed with oil, garlic, herbs. And if one is telling the story of such a culinary triumph, he may indeed spatchcock into the narrative any number of apparently irrelevant titbits, in the manner of Joyce, yes, or Rabelais.

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