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Cooked

A headline on the back page of the Guardian last week read “Wenger denies ‘cooked’ Vieira extra time off”. In translation this says that Arsène Wenger, manager of the British football team Arsenal, was denying that his French captain Patrick Vieira was really tired enough to need a rest.

There are lots of other idiomatic uses of the words cook and cooked of course: to cook the books is to alter figures dishonestly, a phrase much in evidence in American business circles recently; in science, data that has been cooked has been made up to support a theory; chess aficionados use it of chess problems in which the intended solution doesn’t work or there is another way of solving it not thought of by the setter; on the other hand if something or someone is cooking, it’s doing well. But, I’d not encountered cooked in the sense of “exhausted” before.

A small detective investigation followed, with the assistance of Nicholas Shearing at the Oxford English Dictionary and the slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, who shared the examples they had of the word. It turns out that cooked has been in English since the nineteenth century in the sense of being in a bad situation or in serious trouble. It looks as though it is an elliptical form of to cook someone’s goose, meaning to spoil someone’s plans or cause someone’s downfall (before you ask, nobody knows where this comes from). It isn’t widely known, though it does still pop up from time to time — in 1995 the Globe and Mail in Toronto had this: “If you began an election with an eight-point lead, you were home free. If you were eight points behind, you were cooked”. Some of the examples down the years suggest that the bad situation may have come about through exhaustion. For example, in 1913 the Harrow school magazine contained: “They were utterly cooked. They had ceased to have any conscious control of their muscles”.

Vieira was quoted in the Guardian as making his comments to the Paris newspaper L’Equipe, so presumably he had actually used the French idiom “Je suis cuit” that can have the same sense and which is in wide use by French sportsmen (there are much older senses in French of cuit meaning drunk or being done for), though it doesn’t seem to have yet reached dictionaries in France. So did the Guardian translate Patrick Vieira’s words with the known English sense in mind? The obvious assumption was that it did. But it turns out that L’Equipe had actually translated a comment that had appeared in English in the previous day’s Evening Standard in London (professional rivalry presumably explains why the Guardian hadn’t quoted the Evening Standard directly). One must assume that either Patrick Vieira had mentally translated “Je suis cuit” into literal English or that somebody on the Evening Standard had done so for him. It looks as though the word cooked has been borrowed anew from French and isn’t a new sense of the older English slang term.

The results of some online searches support this. A glossary of cyclists’ slang says cooked means “Running out of energy while riding”. There are many examples from bike racing of its being used in this way. Knowing France’s influence in professional cycling, it seems possible that cyclists have likewise borrowed the phrase from French. Further evidence online suggests that it may be moving from cycling into sport in general (its appearances in the Guardian and Evening Standard may help that along).

It shows once again that language can change in ways that are often more complicated and mysterious than one might think — especially with slang — and that one can’t take anything for granted.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 28 Sep. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 28 September 2002.