By the Great Horned Spoon!

Mark.Mandel at LHSL.COM Mark.Mandel at LHSL.COM
Tue Nov 27 15:47:23 UTC 2001

Jim Landau commented:

>I think the correct expression is "...the great horn spoon" and presumably
>dates from a time when spoons were made from animal horns.

and Doug Wilson expanded:
That's right. The expression appears in DARE and in Mathews. It is
sometimes said to have been nautical slang, which might favor Jim Landau's
theory. The *great* horn spoon might be Ursa Major.

That's what I decided (unauthoritatively) after first encountering the
expression in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books, while
reading it to my children. (Not the TV series. *Never* the TV series!)
Laura's family gets a cow -- iirc, their neighbors are leaving and can't
take the cow with them, so they give her to the Wilders -- but when Pa
tries to milk her she kicks him. Pa gets mad and vows, "Now, by the Great
Horn Spoon, I'll milk her!" (And he does.)

I *think* that swearing by Ursa Major is attested in other Indo-European
languages -- any info out there? And ISTR seeing something like it in the
_Kalevala_, which of course is Finnish and not Indo-European, but also from
a Northern culture where Ursa Major is in the sky every night. Of course,
swearing by a spoon made from a cow's horn would be particularly
appropriate in Pa's circumstance!

However "the horn"
apparently was once a name of Ursa Minor, also (an abbreviated equivalent
of "horn-spoon"?). Or the oath could have been a euphemism based on an
earlier impolite exclamation with "horn" = "erect penis" or "hornie" = "the

I'm sure that Pa, or at least Laura, was not aware of any such association,
or she wouldn't have quoted him so.

There are several instances in "Harrington", by William Douglas O'Connor
(1860), at MoA (books) (Michigan).

Laura's account was set in the 1880s.

                  Mark A. Mandel : Senior Linguist
 Dragon Systems, a Lernout & Hauspie company : speech recognition
 320 Nevada St., Newton, MA 02460, USA :

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