"hedge in the cuckoo"

Charles C Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Mon Sep 9 14:26:34 UTC 2013

The old tale of the foolish Gothamites' effort to pen the cuckoo was published in 1565, in _Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham_, often attributed to Andrew Borde (1490?-1543).  Greville's poem, which (as Garson has noted) seems to use the expression proverbially, was first published (posthumously) in 1633.


From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] on behalf of ADSGarson O'Toole [adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM]
Sent: Monday, September 09, 2013 4:03 AM

Relevant to George's comment: Here is a cite in a book of folklore in
1886 that attributed a proverbial phrase to a person who lived in the
1500s and 1600s:

Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628).
 "Fools only hedge the cuckoo in."

Year: 1886
Title: The Folk Lore and Provincial Names of British Birds
Author: Charles Swainson
Publisher: Folk Lore Society, London


[Begin excerpt]
Having got the cuckoo, the next thing seems to have been to keep him,
as it appears he was considered as the cause of summer. Hence we have
several tales, recorded by Mr. Hardy, of various attempts on the part
of sages to enclose him--e.g., the "wise men of Gotham," in
Nottinghamshire; the "coves of Lorbottle," in Northumberland; certain
Cornishmen, residence unknown; and the "cuckoo penners" of Somerset,
to all of whom apply the words of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke
(1554-1628). that
   "Fools only hedge the cuckoo in."
[End excerpt]


George Thompson wrote
> The English tradition of the village of fools -- Gotham, taken by
> Washington Irving and applied to NYC -- included the story that they
> noticed that when the cuckoos left their nesting sites and flew off, summer
> was over and winter was not far off.  So they build a fence around the tree
> the cuckoo was nesting in, to make summer last.
> As it happens, the European cuckoo doesn't build nests, but is a parasite
> that lays eggs in the nests of other species.  So I may be remembering the
> species of bird wrong here, or else the confusion over the cuckoo is
> another sign of the folly of the Gothamites.  The ways of the cuckoo had
> been noticed:
> The cuckoo then, on every tree,
> Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
>       =93Cuckoo!
> Cuckoo, cuckoo!=94 O word of fear,
> Unpleasing to a married ear.
>      Love's Labors Lost
> (The American cuckoos are birds of exemplary habits; our nest parasite is
> the cow bird.)
> On Sun, Sep 8, 2013 at 11:32 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:
>> The phrase "hedge in the cuckoo" appears figuratively in two
>> quotations in the OED:
>> Under "cuckoo, n." sense 1.a.:
>> 1652   W. Blith Eng. Improver Improved ii. 14   He..may as well make
>> a hedge to keep in the Cuckow.
>> And under "cordon, n.", sense 3.c. fig.:
>> 1792   E. Burke Corr. (1844) IV. 21   They propose that all Europe
>> shall form a cordon to hedge in the cuckoo.
>> "Garrisons were here and there planted in the wild woods on a
>> pretence, To keep the Indians from Fishing; which project of Hedging
>> in the Cuckow's, our dull New-Englanders could not understand."
>> I have no idea whether the expression should be called out as a
>> separate item, nor under what main heading ("hedge" or "cuckoo").
>> 1689 June 6.
>> The Puritan Leaders Justify Their Actions.
>> In The Glorious Revolution in America: Documents on the Colonial
>> Crisis of 1689.
>> Ed. Michael G Hall, Lawrence H. Leder, and Michael G. Kamman.
>> Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1964.
>> P. 49, col. 1.
>> Cited to [W. H.] Whitmore, ed., Andros Tracts [Prince Society,
>> Publications], II, 191--202.
>> Joel

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