by Piet Coetzer

When a crown turns into a feather

The words for mistakes and improvement in behaviour

When a crown turns into a feather
Cock up 001.jpg

Over the last week or two things went seriously sour for First National Bank (FNB) with its corporate branding 'You can help' campaign. The expression that comes to mind is that it turned into a proper 'cock up'. 

This is not the platform to argue the appropriateness or wisdom of using what can be regarded as essentially political content in commercial advertising. Neither is it the place to enter into debate or judge the attitude of South Africa’s governing elite to the FNB campaign and issues like freedom of speech.

It is, however, crystal clear that FNB did not get the response to their campaign that it hoped for. Things went in a totally different direction from what the bank intended. 

And, in that sense, as well as with the governing party declaring that they would have expected better behaviour from FNB, the 'cock up' expression is quite appropriate. 

For most people the 'cock up' expression probably brings some vulgar connotation to mind. As so often happens, the origins of the expression are both figuratively and literally far removed from the modern content given to it.

'Cock up' made its first appearance in an untitled 1791 rhyme by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, which tells the story of a young man who had ambitions to don a crown but ended up only adorning his beaver fur hat with a cock’s feather. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries cocks' feathers were commonly used to spruce up garments and were also used in a figurative sense, where a person was advised to 'cock up' his or her behaviour or performance . 

But it is also from this that we have the expression to 'cock a snook' at somebody or something. It is not sure where the word 'snook' comes from, or what it refers to, but the meaning of the derisive gesture is well established.

Possibly the 'snook' part of the expression comes from snout (as in nose), since the gesture of pointing your thumb at your nose while waving the other fingers at someone is a very old and less rude or vulgar derisive gesture than the more modern use of finger or hand signals.

The use of the expression 'cock up' as a more polite alternative to expressions like 'balls up' and others even more vulgar only became common towards the middle of the 20th century. But it is said that 'cock-up' itself first came to be used in the way we now understand it around 1920 as a slang term among British forces.

The governing party may well think of quoting that original Burns rhyme to FNB in expressing their dissatisfaction with the bank’s behaviour. It goes ...

When first my brave Johnnie lad came to this town, 

He had a blue bonnet that wanted the crown; 

But now he has gotten a hat and a feather, 

Hey, brave Johnnie lad, cock up your beaver!

Cock up your beaver, and cock it fu' sprush, 

We'll over the border, and give them a brush; 

There's somebody there we'll teach better behaviour, 

Hey, brave Johnnie lad, cock up your beaver!

But they will also do well, mindful of the mood of many South Africans as evidenced by the proliferation of violent protests, to take note of other aspects of Burns’ life history.

As the son of a poor farmer, becoming himself a struggling one, Burns became a supporter of the French Revolution and a rebel against the social order of his time.


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