“Cock-up”

Today, the splendid writer James Wolcott (@James Wolcott) tweeted: “Romney’s multi-gaffe cock up: these are the times that try Jennifer Rubin’s soul.” (Ms. Rubin is a conservative blogger.) Naturally, that made me wonder whether cock-up had verged into NOOB territory

The OED defines this expression as meaning “a blunder, a mistake, a confused situation,” and cites it first in a 1948 dictionary of soldiers’ slang compiled by Eric Partridge. It is widely used in the U.K., notably in the phrase, “What a cock-up!” (Jonathan Coe has a novel with the subtitle “What a Carve-Up,” which I always imagined was a bowdlerized version.)

Wolcott notwithstanding, it’s very much still on the radar in these parts, its use mainly limited to hip or pseudo-websites, to wit:

“So yeah, maybe this isn’t Ryan Reynolds’ cock-up.” (Gawker.com, June 20, 2011, on the failure of the film “The Green Lantern”)

“But by any measure, this has been a monstrous cock-up.” (Slate.com, May 27, 2010, on BP’s handling of the Gulf oil spill)

But it’s certainly an evocative expression, and I look for more penetration soon.

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13 responses to ““Cock-up”

  1. Was that double-entendre in the final sentence intentional?

  2. This is so familiar that I thought we’d already covered it.

  3. No one can top Inspector Grimm in ‘The Thin Blue Line’:
    “Your cock-up; my arse.”
    Rarely has so much meaning depended upon a slight pause in the delivery.

  4. “What a Carve Up!” was the original British title, not subtitle, of Coe’s novel. It’s taken from a 1961 British film, a comedy in which various members of an extended family gather at an old dark house for the reading of a rich relative’s will, and over the course of a couple of days get bumped off one by one. To carve up is to divide the spoils, but also to inflict damage on someone, so that’s the basic pun; but I think you may well be right that an echo of “cock-up” was intended.
    Its most significant use, I think, is in the phrase “cock-up theory”, generally proposed as a counter to conspiracy theory: the phrase embodies the conviction that when things go badly it is usually as a consequence of stupidity rather than malice. This is a very British attitude.

  5. To extend the article: there is a verb form, as in “you really have cocked it up this time.” So, you can cock things up. The stronger form of cock-up, I suppose, is “fuck-up”. I could use “cock-up” in front of the teenagers I teach, but not the other.

    As for derivation, there could be some source in musketry, where the piece has to be cocked, before being fired. Don’t forget, though, that cock, in British English, is probably the most used word for the American dick, with the additional overtone that to cock something is also to erect it. So, cock-up also has a vaguely sexual sense, and is not completely polite.

  6. there is also “balls up”

  7. This reminds me of a British sit-com where the protagonist having taken some Viagra, found that it had no effect. As he apologised to his lady-friend he uttered those wonderful lines, “There’s been a cock-up in the cock up department.” Wonderful.

  8. Cockup is actuatly a brewing term not anything sexual!, it refers to when the beer went bad cos air got in, causing gas to be produced and a leaver (or cock) gets raised by the gas pressure, hence the cock being up is a mistake, so you have cockup

  9. We (I speak as a Brit) use ‘carve up’ when everyone takes the number of card tricks they needed in a game of whist, which I suppose is just a more specific meaning of ‘divide the spoils’. I don’t think there is necessarily any link to the expression ‘cock-up’.

  10. I was always led to understand that cock-up originated in the habit of the British civil service correcting mistakes in documents with annotations written at an angle to the original, so mistakes were shown by a cock-up.

  11. PS. There are also mountains in Cumbria (UK) called Great and Little Cockup. See Wikipedia for a derivation.

  12. “Cock-up” and “ballzup” are yet again two phrases that Americans will experimentally use, not quite realizing how taboo they still are in UK polite company.

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