Friday, December 3, 2010

Mother Tongue

Everyday I'm reminded that I live in a foreign country, and this is reasonable, because I do live in a foreign country. There are clear similarities between the UK and the US, of course, and perhaps nowhere more so than here in New England. The most obvious difference though, aside from the clear disparity in skill and care in driving automobiles [note to fishing friends: this does not apply to any of you], is in our respective language, even when referring to fishing or other country pursuits. Where you have fishing holes, we have pools, for example. A male pheasant or salmon is called a cock in the UK (the opposite of a hen, which America chose to retain), but a buck in the US. Your Chickadees are tits to me.

Bill Bryson wrote wonderfully about the evolution of this Transatlantic difference in his book Mother Tongue, and I had a similarly enriching dialogue with an American friend just yesterday that I wanted to share. In this example we were discussing my theory that, in the US, perhaps a certain prudish morality had helped shape common terms in America today?

"Yes", my friend agreed, "it would make more sense for us to call them cocks since we still call the females hens (and not does). But your explanation, while logical, is historically incorrect. The name change actually happened back in 1887, when Bob Griswold I, known to locals as "Bait rodder", rolled into town with a burlap sack full of dozens of dead, male steelhead, and shouted at the top of his lungs "Bag of cocks!! Bag of cocks!!! I caught me a bag of cocks!!"

"In an effort to out do him, many other fisherman began keeping large numbers of male steelhead.  It became common to greet somebody at the local store with "Get your bag of cocks yet?". The effect on the steelhead population was, of course, entirely predictable. The numbers crashed, and managers, finally wise to basic ecology, instituted new conservation measures around 1937. Initially, anglers were slow to cooperate, but when, at the request of fisheries managers,  Bob Griswold II (aka "Spin rodder"), son of Bob Griswold I, stopped referring to male steelhead as cocks and instead as "bucks", populations recovered. A few anglers, in an effort to keep the old ways alive, would occasionally arrive with their "bag of bucks", but all agreed it just wasn't the same, and soon the tradition died out. In an interesting linguistic twist of fate, the term "bag of cocks", once meant to convey pleasure and success, was eventually corrupted so that the term now means, quite ironically, the exact opposite. Up until about 1925 or so, for example, it was not at all uncommon to hear people, anglers and non-anglers alike, describe something as being "better than a big back of cocks". The term might be used to describe a new car, as in "This here beauty runs like a dream and is prettier than a bag of cocks." Or a woman might say to her husband "Dear, I love you like I love a big bag of cocks", and he would swell with pride. But within a decade or two, as you well know, the phrase did a 180 degree turn, so that now, one might say, for example, upon returning from an unsuccessful striper foray, "Well, that sucked a big bag of cocks." 

Brayshaw and a male (buck, or cock) sucker

Many modern day anglers, totally unappreciative of the richness of angling lore and tradition, are completely unaware of the irony of their modern usage of the phrase. And of course readers won't need to be told of the "double irony" of the fact that the term was revitalized primarily by our good angling friend Bob Griswold IV, aka "flyrodder", great-grandson of baitrodder.

EJ, with historic perspective - the good bits - by TJ.


  1. I once fished a river mouth not far from where this guy called "flyrodder" was fishing. He really does say "bag of cocks". My friend and I were fascinated by the phrase, but never knew its origins.


  2. I heard this is how a "mixed bag" came about too. Like fishing a brace of flies or maybe just two.

  3. Hi,
    I read your article, you’re describing of expression is excellent and the most valuable thing is, your attracting topic declaration. I really enjoyed and great effort. The points covers in the blog are awesome. Great to read your blog and thanks for this valuable information.
    Hard and long cock pump