(v. phr.) to ingratiate yourself by acting obsequiously
An old bit of language folklore will have you believe that currying favour with someone—that is, obsequiously ingratiating yourself with them for personal gain—is based around the image of gradually mixing yourself into their group until you’re finally admitted into it, just as the flavours in a curry slowly work their way throughout the dish.
It’s another nice theory certainly, but again it’s completely untrue. In fact the true story behind this expression is a lot stranger than it might first appear:
The edible kind of curry takes its name from a Tamil word for a sauce or relish, karil, that first appeared in English in the late sixteenth century in the journals of a Dutch merchant sailor:
Most of their [the people of India’s] fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat sour, as if it were sodden in gooseberries or unripe grapes, but it tasteth well.
Jan Huygen van Linschoten, A Discourse of Voyages into The East and West Indies (1598)
The curry of currying favour is an old French word, corrier, which literally means “to groom a horse”. This sense of the word has largely fallen out of use in English—although horse groomers are still sometimes known as curriers, while the tanning or treatment of leather or animal hide is also somewhat archaically known as currying.
But if that’s the curry, what’s the favour? Well, take a look at this sixteenth-century proverb:
He thatt wylle in courte abyde, must cory favelle bake and syde, for souche gett moste gayne.
Thomas Underhill, Narratives of the Days of the Reformation (c. 1561)
In other words, “everyone in the royal court must curry favour at every opportunity in order to make the greatest possible personal gain”.
Tellingly, the word favor here has been replaced by “favelle”—an old fourteenth-century word for a chestnut-coloured horse, which is in turn derived from its earlier French equivalent, fauve, or favvel. So what does grooming a chestnut horse have to do with acting obsequiously?
The missing link here is a medieval French narrative poem called the Roman de Fauvel, or “Story of Fauvel”. The eponymous Fauvel was a chestnut-colored horse, whose name was an abbreviation of the six vices flaterie (flattery), avarice, vilanie (vileness), varieté (variability), envie (envy), and lascheté (laxity). In the story, Fauvel decides to try to take over his master’s house, and with the help of “Dame Fortune” (a personification of fate) uses every trick in the book to rise to considerable prominence in the French royal household and soon has all the leaders of the church and state fawning over him. Before long, everyone is quite literally “currying Fauvel”.
Fauvel’s tale proved immensely popular in its day, and soon “currying a chestnut-coloured horse” had become a well-known metaphor for ingratiating yourself with someone to improve your own standing. Having first appeared in English in the early 1400s, the phrase had morphed into “currying favour” by the turn of the century, and has remained in use in that form ever since.
If you liked this post, it’s taken from The Accidental Dictionary, out now