Q From Patrick Martin: As I gave the cat its supper, I said to my wife that I was doing it to curry favour with the cat. Out of curiosity I looked curry up in the two-volume Oxford dictionary to see where this expression comes from. The explanation involved a chestnut horse. This seems a bit far-fetched. Is there a better explanation?
A Believe it or not, the explanation is correct. But then, it’s an odd phrase — why should curry have anything to do with winning the favour of somebody or ingratiating oneself with him?
Its origin lies in a French medieval allegorical poem called the Roman de Fauvel, written by Gervais de Bus and Chaillou de Pesstain in the early 1300s. Fauvel was a horse, a conniving stallion, and the poem is a satire on the corruption of social life. He decided he didn’t like his stable and moved into his master’s house, becoming the master and being visited by church leaders and politicians who sought his favour.
There are several layers of meaning in his name: fauve is French for a colour variously translated as chestnut, reddish-yellow, tawny or fawn. A close English equivalent is the rather rare fallow, as in fallow deer, an animal with a brownish coat (it may be that uncultivated ground is also said to be fallow because it looks that colour). Fauve is also a collective name, originally les bêtes fauves, for a class of wild animals whose coats are tawny, such as lions and tigers, and hence ferocious wild animals (the fauverie in a French zoo houses the big cats). In the poem, the name Fauvel can moreover be glossed as fau-vel, a veiled lie, but it is actually a partial acronym of the initial letters of the French words for six sins: flatterie, avarice, vilenie, variété, envie, and lâcheté (flattery, avarice, depravity, fickleness, envy and cowardice). His colour also evokes the old medieval proverbial belief that a fallow horse was a symbol of dishonesty.
The poem was well known among educated people in Britain, who began to refer to Fauvel, variously spelled, as a symbol of cunning and depravity. That soon became curry Favel. This curry has nothing to do with Indian food (a word that came into English only at the end of the sixteenth century via Portuguese from Tamil kari, a sauce or relish) but is another ancient word from a French source, still common in English, which means to rub down or comb a horse. The idea behind currying Favel is that the horse was highly susceptible to flattery, figuratively a kind of stroking.
For people who didn’t know the poem — then, as now, that was almost everybody — Fauvel or Favel meant nothing. Favour seemed much more sensible a word and by the early part of the sixteenth century popular etymology had changed it and so it has remained ever since.