Currying favor

Have you ever wondered where the expression to “curry favor (or favour)” comes from?  It means to seek favor or to ingratiate oneself by fawning, flattery or sycophancy. And it has nothing to do with the exotic flavor of Indian curry.

To understand its origins we need to look at each word separately.

“Curry” in this case dates back to an Old French verb conraier meaning ‘to prepare’ or ‘to put in order’.  In Middle English this translated to currayen, leading to the modern verb “to curry”: to clean, rub down, groom or dress the coat of a horse, often using a curry-comb. Another expression using this verb “curry” in its equestrian sense is “a short horse is soon curried”. Poor little horse.

Favor is an Anglicized/bastardized version of the old word favel, meaning yellow, fallow, or dun – or a horse of one of these brownish hues. Related to the word fallow, its meaning was also entangled with that of a similar-sounding old French word favele, meaning “lying” or “deception”. How this evolved into the “favor” of our expression dates back to a famous poem, Roman de Fauvel (“The Romance of Fauvel”), written in the 1300s by a Frenchman named Gervais du Bus. (The poem is probably best known for its musical setting by Philippe de Virty in the Ars Nova style.)  It tells the story of Fauvel (whose letters are all initials of  cardinal sins), a “favel” or fallow donkey or horse, which in medieval times was a symbol of duplicity, greed or deceit. In Du Bus’s morality tale, which served in its time as a satirical social commentary on the corruption of 14th-century Church and State, those in the higher echelons of wealth and power would stroke and groom this conniving beast, engaging in an insincere form of flattery by “currying Fauvel”.

Hence, from the Old French correier fauvel, to the Middle English currayen favel, the expression to “curry a fallow-colored horse” and ultimately to “curry favor” has evolved. It’s understood to have entered the English language at the turn of the 15th century as “curry favel”, and only in the 1500s did it assume its current form. The OED cites two early instances (with slight spelling variations) from the 16th century:

c1510 Barclay Mirr. Gd. Manners (1570) Fvj, Flatter not as do some, With none curry fauour.

1557 N. T. (Genev.) Matt. viii. 20 note, He thoght by this meanes to courry fauour with the worlde.

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