Have you ever wondered, for example, where phrases like “raining cat’s and dogs” and “going off half-cock” came from?
Idioms are phrases that we use everyday and, for most native English speakers, we know exactly what they mean without having to think about it… but when you do stop to think about it, some of these phrases are pretty strange.
In this blog series, we will examine various English idioms and find out where and how they originated!
This Month’s Idiom: “To Go Off Half Cocked”
The English idiom “to go off half cocked” or “to go off at half cock” (chiefly British) means to say or do something impulsively or recklessly, without thinking through the consequences.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the phrase as: “To do or say something without preparing for it or thinking about it.”
Where Does It Come From?
The idiom goes back to the days of flintlock firearms–like muskets, flintlock rifles, and flintlock pistols. The phrase appears in print as early as the 18th century, like in John Desaguliers’ A Course of Experimental Philosophy, which was printed in 1734, and was probably used verbally before that (The Phrase Finder).
Flintlock firearms are complicated to load, and before they can be fired, they have to be “cocked.” To do this, the loader pulls back on a metal “hammer” or “striker.” When the trigger is pulled, the hammer springs forward and creates the spark that fires the weapon. While the weapon is being loaded, they can be “half cocked.” This is like a “safety setting” so that the weapon does not accidentally go off before its user is ready to fire it. However, 18th-century weapons were very unreliable and sometimes did go off “half-cocked” by mistake (The Phrase Finder).
So this is where the idiom comes from! When a flintlock weapon “went off half cocked,” it fired before it was really ready to. In the same way, when we say someone “goes off half cocked,” we are saying they had done something before they were ready ready to or should have.