This phrase formerly meant "by fair means or foul", although now it often (especially in the U.K.
) means simply "by whatever necessary means".
The first recorded use is by John Wycliffe
Theories of origin include:
Source: Mark Israel, 'Phrase Origins: "by hook or by crook"', The alt.usage.english FAQ file. Slightly modified and formatted by me.
- A law or custom in mediaeval England that allowed peasants to take as firewood from the King's forests any deadwood that they could reach with a shepherd's crook and cut off with a reaper's billhook
- Rhyming words for "direct" (reachable with a long hook) and "indirect" (roundabout)
- Beginners' writing exercises, where letters have hooks and brackets are "crooks"
- From "Hook" and "Crook", the names of headlands on either side of a bay north of Waterford, Ireland, referring to a captain's determination to make the haven of the bay in bad weather using one headland or the other as a guide.