What Does By Hook or By Crook Mean?

Have you ever heard a person say they’ll do something “by hook or by crook” and wondered what they meant? Read on for the meaning of the phrase and to discover the obscure origin of this common saying.

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What Does By Hook or By Crook Mean?

The idiomatic expression by hook or by crook means “by whatever means necessary.” It’s used to say that any possible methods—be they fair or unfair, honest or dishonest—should or will be used to accomplish a goal. If you say that you will do something by hook or by crook, you’re saying you’ll find a way to do that thing no matter what; that you’ll do whatever it takes to ensure it’s done, even if that means you have to work hard or face difficulty or adversity, or even if it means you have to break the rules.

Here are some example sentences using the expression by hook or by crook:

  • I’m going to win prom queen by hook or by crook! I’ll bake everyone in the class cookies or do their homework or help with their chores to win their votes if I have to!
  • I’ll make it to the summit of the mountain by hook or by crook. Even if I have to crawl part of the way, I’m going to achieve my lifelong dream of hiking to the top.
  • I had the craziest Christmas! I was determined to see my family by hook or by crook, despite the big snowstorm. Three flights and two bus rides later, I finally made it!
  • My fiancé and I decided we were going to have our dream wedding by hook or by crook, even though finances were limited. We bartered with vendors, hunted for deals, and put in blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen. 
  • It was clear the politician was going to get reelected by hook or by crook. The newspaper recently reported that he bribed powerful officials. 

You may also hear or see the phrase as by hook or crook, with the second by omitted. 

It’s important to note that sometimes the saying is misunderstood to only mean being willing to break the rules, or to use unethical or unfair means, to achieve a desired outcome. However, it simply means by any possible method. As you can see in the examples above, that can mean by honest, hard work or by dishonest tactics.

The Etymology of the Expression

There’s one thing we know for sure about this phrase: It’s been around a long time, since at least the 1300s. But we don’t know precisely when it was first used—it’s possible the first record of the saying, or at least a variant of it, dates to 1380 and the Middle English writings of John Wyclif, or to a decade later, in 1390, and the poet John Gower in his Confessio Amantis. Gower wrote: “What with hepe and what with croke they [false Witness and Perjury] make her maister ofte winne,” with hepe being the medieval name for a billhook (details below).

Nor do we know exactly how the expression came to be. One theory holds that in medieval England, people were allowed by law to gather firewood from their local woodlands, even royal forests. Story goes that they could take dead wood from the ground and only branches that they could gather using certain tools: a shepherd’s crook (a long and sturdy hooked stick) and a reaper’s billhook (a farming tool with a curved end for cutting or pruning). Many language scholars believe this is the most likely origin. Yet, other experts have offered up additional possible explanations. 

It is commonly said that the phrase stems from the names of two nearby villages on opposite sides of a channel in Ireland: Hook Head (in Wexford, Ireland) and Crooke (in Waterford, Ireland). Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland on behalf of the English Parliament in 1649, and it’s reported he said that Waterford would fall “by Hook or by Crooke,” meaning that his army would land at one of these two locations to complete his siege. This story is dubious, however, given that a written record of the expression dates to at least 1390. Another possible origin story in the same vein is that the saying was first uttered by Richard de Clare, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, known by his nickname Strongbow, when he invaded Ireland in the late 12th century.

And still yet other theories have been posited, including that it stems from judges named Hooke and Crooke that could be easily won over. (You can dig up more theories via Wikipedia and other online sources.) 

Understanding Idioms

By hook or by crook is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t typically be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Try to interpret by hook or by crook literally, and you’d be hard pressed to arrive at its intended meaning. The word crook might lead you to believe that the expression has to do with being crooked or dishonest, which you now know can be but isn’t always the case. To understand and properly use the saying, you really must know its figurative meaning outright: in any way possible—by one means or another.

Discover the meanings and origins of many more common idioms. For example, learn about another popular phrase that uses the word hook: off the hook!

Summary

Use this idiomatic expression, defined as “by whatever means necessary,” when you’re determined to accomplish a goal. If you say you’re going to carry out a task by hook or by crook, you’re saying you’ll do anything to complete your mission; that absolutely nothing or no one will stop you. Though theories abound about the origin of the phrase, no one knows for sure how it came to be. Language historians report the phrase dates to the fourteenth century.