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TWTS: "Curry favor" comes from a horse (of course, of course)

Currying favor has everything to do with flattery and horses, and nothing to do with food.

This expression, which means to seek or gain favor through flattery or to use flattery to gain a personal advantage, is an eggcorn that goes back 500 years.

An eggcorn is a re-interpretation of a word or phrase so that it makes more sense to people. Examples of eggcorns include “all intensive purposes” instead of “all intents and purposes,” and “very close veins” instead of “varicose veins.”

In the eggcorn “curry favor,” “curry” is a verb borrowed in from French that means to comb or rubdown a horse. But what horse are we talking about?

The horse in question has the starring role in a 14th century French allegorical poem called “Roman de Fauvel.” The poem is a satirical examination of social corruption and the relationship of church and state.

In the poem, a horse named Fauvel has decided that his stable is unsuitable, so he moves into his master’s house. Fauvel becomes the master of the house and gains prominence in the royal court.

As the story goes, Fauvel was fickle and demanding. Church leaders and politicians would visit and try to please Fauvel. One way to do that was to curry him and make sure he was clean. Thus the phrase, “curry Fauvel.”

“Roman de Fauvel” was popular in England, and the name “Fauvel became a symbol of cunning or duplicity in English. Pronunciation shifted from the French “foh-VEHL” to something that probably sounded like “FAH-vuhl.”

“Curry Fauvel” became an expression that meant to flatter a false or cunning leader for personal gain.  Over time though, people forgot who Fauvel was. By the 1500s, the phrase had been reinterpreted as “curry favor,” and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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