Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 26, 2017

A Hue and Cry at the Dinner Table

As I’ve written before, this happens all the time here at Rancho Retro. A word or phrase comes up in conversation and one of us stops, gets that pondering look and asks, “Where did that word come from?”

Last week, it was The Counselor, who’d encountered the phrase “hue and cry” in an article she was reading. She knows what it means, of course; it’s a general outcry, typically focused on some misdeed or wrongdoing (whether real or perceived).

What, though, she wondered, caused us to have that phrase in the first place? Since when did “hue” mean something other than a tone or shade of color?

She asked that question at dinner. It stumped me, as it had eluded her.

It shouldn’t have. We didn’t think of the proper angle, but the answer stems from the history of English in ways we’ve both encountered, in different contexts.

1066 and All That

Let’s go back to the conquest of England by the Norman French.

All languages change, although the rate at which they evolve is affected by an almost endless number of factors, including migrations of people (both “in” and “out”), wars, instability in economies, changes in the hierarchy of power, to name a few.

A new king, a new court and the attendant introduction of new laws, procedures and practices, all conducted in French, transformed English to a radical degree. The writer David Crystal (more from Mr. Crystal below) tells us there is no extant text in Middle English that does not contain at least some French words. I find that credible.

You’re certainly familiar with this convergence of French and English. I’m certain to have used a large number of words of French origin in this article that wouldn’t be part of my vocabulary if Harold’s gang had done better at Hastings.

There, in the rapid advent of French as the language of the realm (the official lingua franca) lies the primary source of “hue and cry.” Both words, it turns out, mean essentially the same thing. We’re all familiar with “cry.” It entered Middle English as cri or cry from French crier. “Hue” has fallen from use in the meaning assigned in the phrase, but it derived from French huer, “to shout.”

A Quick Look Back at Precursors

Old English already had some predilection to this doubling of synonyms. Some of it inhered in the essence of the poetry, which was chanted or sung, and alliterative. Emphasizing ideas by repeating them was a recurrent motif, as when the Beowulf poet describes the despair that falls on king Scyld when Grendel is raiding his hall and killing his men. I’ll use Seamus Heaney’s translation of portions of two lines:

“Those were hard times, heart-breaking/for the prince of the Shieldings ….”

Times weren’t just tough, they were both hard and heart-breaking. A still common doubling we have from Old English, also used in Beowulf, is the familiar “to have and to hold.” The words mean the same thing, but the poet emphasizes the point, plus gets alliteration from them.

Back to Anglo-Norman times

Imagine you’re a landholder in England. You speak English. A property dispute leads you to court. Not only are the proceedings conducted in that irritating French language, the very statute affecting your case is written in French. Situations like that became a steady impediment to the conduct of business. As time passed, laws, ordinances and statues were amended with terms that both English and French speakers could understand. This gave rise to an entire genre of “lexical doublets” in official documents, and many of them are still familiar: “breaking and entering,” “fit and proper,” “give and grant,” “peace and quiet,” “wrack and ruin,” “will and testament.” There are many more of them.

Ah, we’re nearly there.

All those examples consist of one word from the English lexicon and one from French. In time, 12th and 13th Century lawyers grew habituated to these restatements, and used doublets when defining crimes and misdemeanors (another example!), even if they both hailed from the same original language.

The Answer

That’s where “hue” and “cry” — both French in origin — were wedded together in a union that still persists, even though we’ve abandoned almost any other use of the word “hue” in that sense. Specifically, the 1285 “Statute of Winchester” required constables or citizens to raise a “hue and cry” when they observed a law being broken.

Wikipedia points out that the phrase is still used in the oath of office for constables in the state of Tennessee: from 13th Century Winchester, England, to present-day Winchester, Tennessee (county seat of Franklin County).

The Counselor might’ve recognized “hue and cry” as a legal doublet, given her training in the law (which, BTW, is why I call her The Counselor). I could have at least guessed at the phrase’s origin, since I’d been exposed to lexical doublets in the course of my scattered and disparate reading about the history of the language.

Fortunately, we have dictionaries; Mr. Crystal’s excellent book, The Stories of English and the odd copy of Beowulf lying around. Now we know.

I hope I’ve aided and abetted one tiny slice of your appreciation of the language.

© Brad Nixon 2017. The Stories of English © David Crystal 2004, The Overlook Press. Beowulf, a New Verse Translation © Seamus Heaney 2000, W.W. Norton & Company.  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language © The Houghton Mifflin Company 2000.


  1. Fascinating post. I’d never even thought of this subject before. Thanks for doing the research.

    Not sure about the “breaking and entering” doublet, tho’. Curious about the authority for that one. I don’t think those are alternatives for the same act. Rather, they are distinct, separate acts required for a criminal trespass or burglary.


    • Ok. I’ll check it. You could be right. Consider a career in law.


      • Tried it. Like Matisse and Gauguin, I changed careers. That’s the closest connection I’ll ever have to those greats of art history.


      • That’s you being modest. Never the less, I just checked Mr. Crystal’s book and breaking and entering is indeed in his list of legal couplets. I’m confident he’s right about that. Whether the original framers of statutes had their terms exactly correlative, I’m less certain.


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