Q&A: Why “curry favour”?

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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