When someone does something by hook or by crook, it means they did whatever was necessary (legal or otherwise) to get what they wanted.
On 14 January 2012, the Economist published an article about big shortfalls, slim their balance-sheets, and crippled credit flow in European economies as banks struggled to pull together the extra capital needed to build confidence the financial state of affairs. Despite creative accounting practices, banks appeared to be relying on “every trick in the book to avoid asking investors for more money” even though it appeared that the effort would prove fruitless. The headline read:
European Bank Capital: By Hook Or By Crook
Back on October 12, 1949 the Toledo Blade published an article entitled, “The Navy’s Day.” The news story was how the navy felt that the unification system administered by Defense Secretary Louis Johnson deprived the Navy of an essential role in the national defense. The first paragraph read:
Now that the Navy, by hook and by crook, has won for itself a hearing of its grievances before a congressional committee, we suggest that Defense Secretary Louis Johnson be consistent and place a gag rule on Louie Johnson. Let him follow through on his idea that public bickering is no good for unification.
Jumping back to December 27, 1890 the New York Times ran with a story entitled, “Farwell’s Bitter Fight: Long Jones Aiding Him In His Senatorial Struggle.” The concern was that Long Jones, Chairman of the Republican Central Committee, was out to oust “honestly-elected democratic State Senators.” With the General Assembly standing at 101 Democrats, 100 Republicans, and 3 Farmers’ Alliance, some politicians were convinced that Long Jones was set to snatch Democratic control of the Legislature by shelving John M. Palmer and electing Republican Charles B. Farwell instead. The story began with this announcement:
Charles B. Farwell means to be re-elected to the United States Senate if he and “Long” Jones can, by hook or by crook, bring it about.
The Morning Chronicle of Halifax, Nova Scotia shared with readers on June 6, 1865 that the New Brunswick Assembly had authorized the appointment of a delegation charged with traveling to England to correct impressions created by the Canadian Delegates with regards to where the maritime provinces stood on the question of a Federal Union of the British North America Colonies (this being 2 years prior to Confederation). The story was entitled, “A Move In The Right Direction” and reported the following in part:
It is quite clear that affairs have arrived at such a crisis in Canada that “something must be done,” and that very soon. The Canadian Delegates covet the resources and revenues of the Maritime Provinces — they envy our comparative freedom from taxation, Municipal and Provincial, and we may rest assured that, by hook or by crook, they will drag us into Confederation, if it be possible. With Mr. Cardwell’s declaration on record, however, that there was no intention on the part of the British Government to confederate the Provinces without their free consent, we feel that there is nothing to fear from that quarter.
In Chapter VII of “The Man In The Iron Mask” written by French playwright, historian, and author Alexandre Dumas (24 July 1802 – 5 December 1870) and published in 1848, the expression is found in the dinner scene. The Bishop of Vannes, M. de Baisemeaux, and Aramis (of musketeer fame) are sharing a meal together, and enjoying spirited conversation.
“Bravo!” said Baisemeaux; and he poured out a great glass of wine and drank it off at a draught, trembling with joy at the idea of being, by hook or by crook, in the secret of some high archiepiscopal misdemeanor. While he was drinking he did not see with what attention Aramis was noting the sounds in the great court. A courier arrived about eight o’clock, as Francois brought in the fifth bottle; and although the courier made a great noise, Baisemeaux heard nothing.
Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) wrote “The Fairie Queene” written between 1590 and 1596. The poem is an extended poem in three books. The first two books follows the journey of two knights, Redcrosse and Britomart, while the third deals with the destructive power of living an unchaste life. The pervasive theme throughout is that one can be transformed by evil as well as good, and in the end, Christian values and virtues are those which must be followed with unwavering faith. In Book iii, Canto i the poet wrote:
So as they gazed after her a while,
Lo where a griesly Foster forth did rush,
Breathing out beastly lust her to defile:
His tyreling iade he fiercely forth did push,
Through thicke and thin, both ouer banke and bush
In hope her to attaine by hooke or crooke,
That from his gorie sides the blod did gush:
Large were his limbes, and terrible his looke,
And in his clownish hand a sharp bore speare he shooke.
The expression also appears in the British Pamphleteer, Philip Stubbes’ (c. 1555 – c. 1610) book, “The Anatomie of Abuses in England” published in 1583 he addresses the subject of the “impudence of Harlottes” and writes:
But which is more vayn, of whatfoeuer their petticots be, yet muft they haue kyrtles (for fo they call them eyther of filk, veluet, grograin, taffatie, faten or fearlet, bordered with gards, lace, fringe, and I cannot tell what befydes. So that when they haue all thefe goodly robes vppon them, women feeme to be the fmalleft part of themfelues, not naturall women, but artificiall Women; not Women of flefh & blod, but rather puppits or mawmets of rages & clowtes compact together. So farre hath this cancker of pride eaten into the body of the common welth, that euery poore Yeoman his Daughter, euery Husband his daughter, & euery Cottager his Daughter, will not fpare to flaunt it out in fuche gownes, petticots, & kirtles as thefe. And not withftanding that their Parents owe a brafe of hunndred pounds more than they are worth, yet will they haue it, quo iure quaue iniuria, eyther by hooke or crooke, by right or wrong, as they fay, wherby it commeth to paffe that one can fearily know who is a noble woman, who is an honorable or worshipfull Woman, from them of the meaner forte.
Two hundred years before Philip Stubbes’ use of the expression by hook or by crook, it can be found in John Gower’s book “Confessio Amantis“, written between 1386 and 1390. The poem consists of a prologue, an epilogue, and eight books between the two. Because of the number of surviving manuscripts, historians feel that John Gower gave Geoffrey Chaucer of “Canterbury Tales” fame a run for his money, so to speak.
Perjurie is the fecond hote,
Which fpareth nought to fwere an othe,
Though it be fals and god be wrothe,
That one fhall fals witneffe bere,
That the other fhall the thing forfwere,
Whan he is charged on the boke.
So what with hepe, and what with croke
They make her maifter ofte winne
And woll nought knowe, what is finne
For covetife, and thus men fain,
They maken many a fals bargein.
Yes, as John Gower puts it, man is known to make bargains, even at the expense of his own soul, to get what he wants.
One of the earliest instances where the expression is used is found in one of John Wycliffe’s Controversial Tracts, written circa 1370 wherein he writes:
… sillen sacramentis, as ordris, and oere spiritualte, as halwyng of auteris, of churchis, and churche verdis ; and compellen men to bie alle this with hoke or croke.
The era of Middle English is between 1154 and 1485. During this time period, a crook was understood to mean a dishonest trick and a hook referred to metal bent at an angle. It is easy to see how someone who did something by hook or by crook would be someone who used everything at his disposal to get what he wanted.
Idiomation therefore puts the expression to something during the 1200s, with the earliest published version being John Wycliffe’s in 1370 — understanding that the expression was part of the vernacular long before the publication in John Wycliffe’s writings.