Wednesday, February 17, 2010

By The Great Horn Spoon

Gene from Central Lake asked where this mild oath came from. I can find no definitive answer. The Dictionary of American Regional English declares its origin unknown, which isn’t a promising start.

There’s little question that a horn spoon was a spoon made from cattle horn. The mystery is how a piece of tableware became the basis of an oath. The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins seems to be alone in thinking that it referred to spoons made from the horns of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Big equals great, and the Morrises opt for a frontier origin.

There have also been suggestions that horned spoon developed as a distortion of horned moon, which would be a crescent-shaped moon, but that’s simply more guesswork.

Many instances occur in nautical references, which led James Landau of the American Dialect Society to speculate that it was a reference to celestial navigation, which found the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper very useful in determining location and direction. The North Star sits at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. A dipper, of course, is a ladle —an oversized spoon. This one takes us away from puzzling place settings and would explain where the great came from.

If you sup with the Devil, you'd better have a long spoon.

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

Check out Mike's program-based books here:
Arbutus Press
or at

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:00 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. There is now an archive of podcasts. Look under The Ron Jolly Show.

Write to Mike with comments or questions:
(substitute @ for AT above)

Visit the Senior Corner at



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Dona Sheehan's prints