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Getting the Heck Out of Hock

Estie Neff wants to know, “What are the origins and meanings of the word ‘hock?’”

Hock the Clock: Family heirlooms are the first things to go. Image by GETTY IMAGES

“Hock” can mean many things, including a kind of white wine and the tarsal joint of the hind leg of a digitigrade quadruped. I would assume, however, that Ms. Neff is interested in two particular meanings: the English slang word “hock” in a sentence like, “I had to hock my grandparents’ silver candlesticks to pay the rent,” and Yiddish hakn/Yinglish “hock,” in a sentence like, “I’m tired of you hocking me all the time about global warming.”

Ms. Neff may have turned to this column because “hock” in both of these cases strikes her as a “Jewish” word, although it is actually so in only the second of them. I’ve written in past columns about the Yiddish verb hakn and the expression hakn a tshaynik, to harangue or to run on at the mouth (literally, “to knock on a teapot”), and I won’t repeat myself here, except to point out that, minus the teapot, Yiddish hakn, a close relative of English “to hack,” can also mean “to talk incessantly or verbosely.”

On the other hand, although “to hock” in the sense of “to pawn,” with its accompanying noun meaning “debt” (as in, “I’m in hock for $5,000”), may also sound Jewish, in part because of hakn and in part because pawn broking has often been a profession associated with Jews, it has a very Christian history — far more so, I would propose, than its standard and probably incorrect etymology suggests.

Look up “to hock” in the dictionaries, and you’ll be told, without any supporting evidence, that it comes from the Dutch hok, meaning “prison.” To be in hock, the reasoning goes, was to be in prison for debt; to get out of hock was to pay off the debt, and to hock something was to pawn it so that the debt might be paid.

And yet not only does Dutch itself seem to have no such expressions, but there is also a far better explanation of “hock” having picturesque and old English roots.

Hocktide was a medieval English festivity celebrated on the Monday and Tuesday right after Easter Sunday. In some parts of England, one of its features was a custom called “lifting” or “heaving,” which supposedly commemorated Jesus’ rising from the dead on Easter. On Hock Monday, the men of a village would apprehend the women, lift them up and down three times in a horizontal position by the arms and legs, or seated in a chair, and release them in exchange for either a kiss or, for the shyer of them, a modest fine. On Hock Tuesday, it was the women who lifted the men, demanding similar payment.

In other parts of England, the custom was somewhat different. On the first day of Hocktide, the men captured the women and bound them with ropes; on the second day, it was the other way around. In some places, ropes were stretched across streets and roads to detain passers-by until they paid up. However collected, the money was given to the local parish church for charitable purposes. A parish registry from 1499 in the village of St. Leonard’s, for example, reads: “Rec. [received] of hok money gaderyd of women 20s [20 shillings]. Rec. of hok money gaderyd of men 4s.”

The fact that the men of St. Leonard’s gathered five times as much money as the women may have been due to either their greater strength or their greater willingness to ransom themselves with a kiss.

“Hock money” was thus indeed money paid to be released from “hock.” The hock in question, however, was not debtor’s prison, but captivity at the hands of a laughing crowd of men or women. While the derivation of the “Hock” of Hocktide is unclear, it is interesting that in some areas, the holiday was known as “Hoptide.” “Hop” could conceivably be a dialectal form of “heave” (compare to German heben, “to lift”), and Hocktide might be a corruption of Hoptide.

With the exception of a single watered-down version in the English town of Hungerford, Hocktide has not survived. For the most part, it disappeared from England by the end of the 17th century, having been dealt a mortal blow by Henry VIII, who banned it for encouraging rowdy behavior. Perhaps this is why etymologists have not connected it with “to hock” in its sense of “to pawn,” a meaning whose first documentation is from early 19th-century America.

Yet the population of America at the time was still heavily English in origin, and there is no reason that an unrecorded regional meaning of “to hock” could not have reached America from England in the 17th or 18th century and first appeared in print much later. A word’s earliest written attestation does not necessarily tell us much about the word’s antiquity. Moreover, dictionaries, like students, are notorious for copying from each other; once a wrong etymology gets into one of them, it can be perpetuated indefinitely. All in all, Hocktide as the source of “to hock” seems to me a far better bet than the Dutch hok.

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