Talking cock in the Year of the Rooster

Talking cock in the Year of the Rooster
PHOTO: Reuters

Something I've been thinking about, amid the pineapple tarts and bak kwa: Is it just me, or have roosters gotten the short end of the stick, at least in the English language?

I mean, how many other birds -- or animals, for that matter - have such a smutty double entendre for a secondary name?

I'm referring, of course, to the rooster's original moniker - the cock.

According to the book, Word Origins --penned by the Bloomsbury English Dictionary's Chief Etymologist, John Ayto - the word "cock" is likely of onomatopoeic origin, imitative of the male fowl's call.

Ayto gives the example of :cock-a-doodle-doo" in English, coquerico in French, and kikeriki in German. Across the seas, there's also cuc-cu in Vietnamese, and Arabic's ko-ko.

Beyond those aural associations, though, it's hard to be sure where the word "cock" comes from.

"It reflects similar words in other languages, such as medieval Latin coccus and Old Norse kokkr, but which if any the English word was borrowed from is not clear," writes Ayto.

By the early 1600s, the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, was popularising "pillicock" as a slang for "penis".

Take the infamous "PIllicock sat on Pillicock Hill" line from King Lear, for example - a prize specimen of dirty talk, Elizabethan-style.

But because of its sexual suggestiveness, the word "cock" - as used to describe a male chicken -- began to fall out of favour.

By 1772, a new contender emerged to rule the nest: "rooster", derived from the verb "to roost".

Still, wordsmiths continued to weave their magic, leaving us with phrases like "cock and bull" for a tall tale, and "cocksure" for an arrogant person.

And with Singlish, we claim the delightful expressions of "talking cock", "cock up", and "cock-eyed" as our own, even though some dictionaries say the latter two originate from British slang.

Still, should anyone doubt the Singaporean-ness of "talk cock", simply direct them to the Hansard - Singapore's official record of Parliamentary debates.

There, enshrined forever, is a record of a 1962 sitting where Singapore's first Minister for Law (as well as Labour), Kenneth Michael Byrne - an angmoh name, to be sure, but the Eurasian Mr Byrne was born and bred in Singapore - accused David Marshall of talking "a lot of cock" in the House.

This prompted the then-Speaker of Parliament, Sir George Oehlers, to wonder aloud "whether the word 'cock' is parliamentary or not". The hilarious back-and-forth that ensued makes one yearn for the days of yore:

Speaker: "Order. If the Minister will explain what he means by 'cock' then I will decide whether or not it is parliamentary or unparliamentary."

Mr Byrne: "That is a lot of 'hooey' if you will allow me to associate 'cock' with 'hooey'."

Speaker: "Order. 'Hooey' is not the same as ''hop suey'' is it? Let us forget all those words and get on with the business of the day."

What a time to be alive.

In another (perhaps more easily-recalled, and certainly more notorious) instance, Singapore Democratic Party Member of Parliament (MP) Ling How Doong cried "don't talk cock" in the midst of a Parliamentary debate, in response to something his fellow opposition MP Chiam See Tong had whispered in his ear.

Lim was later reprimanded for the, um, inappropriate ejaculation.

Fast-forward to 2017, where on another continent, the master of talking cock has just been elected President of the United States.

By some strange coincidence, Donald Trump's ascent to the country's highest office -- a flight of fancy to some, until Nov 8 last year - hasarched in tandem with the Year of the Rooster.

How fitting; the man is as precious a cock as you'll ever find - crowing loudly, his chin a veritable wattle, his hair a sweeping comb(over).

And while it may be tempting - therapeutic, even - to dismiss him as a dumb cluck, the reality is that America (and indeed, the world) must come to grips with his fancy new feathers, and his unwonted approach to policymaking.

Only time will tell if his protectionist policies will come home to roost, or if his naysayers will find the yolk's on them.

Guess we'll all be watching closely to see who ends up with an egg on their face.

OFFBEAT

With Singlish, we claim the delightful expressions of "talking cock", "cock up", and "cock-eyed" as our own, even though some dictionmaries say the latter two originate from British slang.

Kelly Tay


This article was first published on February 4, 2017.
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