Sunday, August 14, 2011

Curry Favour

An interesting example of Folk Etymology is curry favour meaning to ingratiate oneself by flattery. First, curry is the word meaning to brush or groom a horse, not the Indian spice. And the second word was originally Fauvel, the name of a horse in a satirical French medieval poem from the early 1300s. The French word fauvel from which the horse was named meant "fallow" or "chestnut-coloured" among a few other meanings, but was not related to favour. Fauvel, the equine hero of the poem, was a cunning rascal, the sort of character that might be influenced by flattery or favours.

The phrase to curry Fauvel developed meaning to ingratiate yourself with someone hoping for a favor in return, like you would by currying the rascally horse. At the time that the phrase developed in English, the poem was well known to educated people in Britain. As time went by the poem, and therefore the original meaning of Fauvel, was forgotten, and the word favour was substituted. While the word favour made perfect sense with the meaning of the phrase, the verb curry remained as a curious puzzle.

By the way, the word for the spice curry came a few centuries later from Tamil via Portuguese.

Source: POSH and other language myths by Michael Quinion, 2004, Penguin Books, London


  1. That is very interesting. The expression we all use but the origin no one knew. Why do we never question these old expressions that make no obvious sense without the background?

    1. So long as we know what they mean, why should we?

    2. For curiosity's sake...same reason Newton questioned why an apple landed on his head, and look where that led.

    3. As linguists (and almost everyone else knows by now) know, almost all words and expressions depend on their context for meaning. If we see them in context, most native speakers of the language can be fairly certain of the meaning. However, knowing the origin of words and expressions greatly enriches one's knowledge of culture and history. No insignificant dividend in my view. I found this site while searching for the etymology of the word "curry" in its culinary usage as a substantive, knowing full well that it is used as a predicate in other expressions. As a chef and a linguist, I feel the joy of adding to my store of knowledge... now, back to the kitchen!
      Great site, Stan! Thank you!

    4. hi Paul - glad you stumbled across my blog and learned something about the word curry. I enjoyed researching and writing these posts over 3 or so years. There is a lot of interesting stuff in them, if I may say so myself, (and I occasionally drop in and read one or two) and hope you will browse through more when time permits. Stan

    5. Thanks for the note, Stan...
      I certainly do plan to browse through your material.
      The Stay Healthy Naturally Blog looks very interesting as well. The next time you find yourself in Arkansas, send me a note and I will have a place for you to stay:

    6. I just looked at the Health Blog and I was surprised to see where you live. I thought you were British but I see you are Canuck! When I graduated from dental school in 1976 (Loma Linda University in California), I took and passed the Canadian Dental Boards (all written) and since I had to wait to see if I had passed the California Boards, I practiced dentistry a few weeks in the office of a fellow Seventh-day Adventist dentist who has several dental offices in Canada, including Rosetown.
      I received notice shortly thereafter that I had passed the California Boards and about that time I also noticed that the geese were flying south and so did I!
      Lovely town and lovely people but the climate was a bit too rigorous for me! Small world, isn't it? ☺

    7. I forgot to mention a very useful web site for anyone interested in nutrition and health:
      This is a goldmine of science-based and science-backed information on almost every aspect of health and disease. I am sure you will benefit from becoming acquainted with it!

    8. Thanks Paul. Neat that you had actually worked in Rosetown at one time. And you ended up in Arkansas? I would like to correspond further about your time in Canada. Please contact me at