Q&A: Why “curry favour”?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're getting curried away…

Q: Hi AWC. I need suggestions on how to carry favour with my new boss. Can you help?

A: Sure, although you really need to “curry favour” with your boss.

Q: Yeah I guess I could make a butter chicken or something… 

A: No, we mean that it’s “curry favour”, not “carry favour”.

Q: Say what now?

A: That’s the saying – to seek favour through flattery is to “curry favour”.

Q: Sounds like “curry flavour”. I suppose next you’re also going to tell me that “Kowtow” is great on Chinese food, right?

A: No, but to ‘kowtow’ does indeed mean the same as to ‘curry favour’ with someone. It dates back to the early 1800s, from the Chinese k'o-t'ou (“head touch”) custom of touching your head to the ground as a sign of respect. 

Q: Okay, that makes sense. But curry?

A: You’re mistakenly letting the tandoori tell the story. But in fact, the Indian “curry” has only been around in English since the 1700s – from the word “kari” meaning a sauce with rice. 

Q: So what curry should I be ordering instead?

A: A much older verb – dating back to the late 1200s. It came from Old French “correier” and meant to put in order or prepare – and was specifically used for grooming or rubbing down a horse. In fact, “curry” is still in use today – horsey people will know it. 

Q: Horsey people? Do you mean centaurs?

A: Um no. People who are… really into horses.

Q: Ah, right. Of course. Curry on… I mean, carry on.

A: These days, you would still “curry” or rub a horse, typically with a ‘currycomb’ – a many-toothed tool to help clean off dirt and other muck.

Q: So we’ve gone from spicy to horsey, but what does this have to do with “curry favour”?

A: Hold your horses – we’re getting to that. The saying is most likely linked to the 14th century French poem Roman de Fauvel – where people lined up to “curry Fauvel” – a rather corrupt horse who deceived everyone into bowing down and flattering him.

Q: They probably told him he was hung like a horse.

A: Haha, cute. 

Q: But how did “Fauvel” become “favour”?

A: It’s likely that it was simply a mishearing of “Fauvel” (which meant nothing in English), leading to the first recorded reference in 1510 – using “curry favour” to mean flattery. 

Q: So the idiom actually should have been to “curry horses”? 

A: Yes perhaps, but as we’ve seen with many idioms and common phrases, they’re like fossils – whatever state they’re in when first formed is how they stay. 

Q: I guess it makes more sense this way. To groom a favour.

A: That’s true. And there are plenty of other words or phrases that mean similar things. To “kowtow”, “pander”, “flatter”, “fawn”, “bootlick”, “apple polish”, “grovel”, “butter up”, “truckle”, “sweet-talk”, “suck up”, “cajole”, “toady” or even “brown nose”.

Q: I wonder what it says about humanity that we have so many terms for this! 

A: Indeed. 

Q: Do you think “brown nosing” comes from kowtowing in a curry?

A: No, it’s American from 1939 and definitely relates to being an “ass kisser”. 

Q: And on that bum note, let’s leave it there!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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