Hawk vs. Hock

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between the verbs hawk and hock? Both have associations with mercantile transactions, but the meanings and etymologies are distinct.

To hawk one’s wares is to sell them. The word has no relationship to the name of the raptor or to the extension of that term to refer to person who supports war; one might associate a hawker calling out to prospective buyers with the cry of a hawk, but the verb hawk and the noun hawker derive from the German word höker, meaning “to peddle.” However, hawk is also used as a verb to describe clearing the throat of phlegm; this sense derives from the bird’s harsh call.

To hock, by contrast, is to pawn one’s possessions — to give to a moneylender as security. (The person who hocks belongings then either repays the lender or forfeits the belongings, which the lender may then sell.) This word comes from the Dutch term hok, meaning “prison” or “enclosure”; the association is that someone who is in hock (in debt) is beholden to another as if he or she is a prisoner.

Hock, from the Middle English word hoch, meaning “heel,” has another meaning: It refers to the ankle of certain quadrupeds such as horses or the part of a bird’s leg corresponding to that part of the anatomy; by extension, it also applies to a cut of meat taken from just above an animal’s foot.

Among oenophiles, hoch also refers to German white wines; the name is a truncation of the city name Hochheim.

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6 Responses to “Hawk vs. Hock”

  • Lauris

    Thanks, I was always dubious about the origins of the web /hawk/. However, I’m actually writing to recommend David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. This book discusses the moral, historical and sociological aspects of debt, but is also very interesting in terms of language analysis as it covers numerous words for debt and traces their origins and how the common folk started use these terms.

    Some words that have a debt-related origin are actually such common words like please, mercy (french ‘merci’), hospitality, etc. A fascinating subject, really.

  • Cliff Douglas

    Hock is one of the most common words in Yiddish. It is a verb meaning to pester or literally to knock.

  • Maeve

    Perhaps there’s one more difference worth mentioning: the difference in pronunciation–the short o sound in hock vs the “aw” sound in hawk. (hŏk), (hôk). Some regional pronunciations don’t make a difference between the two. Another such pair is don/dawn. http://americanenglishdoctor.com/wordpress/how-do-you-pronounce-dawn

  • Roberta B.

    Good point, Maeve, about the vowel pronunciations and a good reference for deriving associated words. Some others = huckster, haggler. So, could the origin of the term “hooker” to refer to a prostitute be derived from the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) word “hoker” (with diacritical mark) mentioned above meaning to peddle (one’s wares)? That would make more sense than some of these ridiculous theories associated with one Civil War general.

  • April P.

    I was thinking this made sense for “hooker,” too. (Oh, no — I blush: I just realized the present-day term “hooking up” might be related to hooker; does anyone know?)

    Also, in addition to horse meat (faint!), I would guess that a more common usage is in the pairing with pig meat, as in ham hocks. Not pleasant to think upon, but delicious in soup.

    Thanks for this nerdy-wordy site. I love it!

  • thebluebird11

    All good points above. I’m originally from NY, so altho I’ve tried to modify my pronunciation to fit in with the local Floridians here (altho most are from NY too LOL), I used to speak Brooklynese and pronounce HAWK with the AW sounding like the O in MORE, and HOCK to rhyme with ROCK. Now, I still don’t pronounce both the same, but I pronounce HAWK with my mouth being distinctly more”open.”
    I love to hear about the ways people in different places pronounce things differently. “How We Talk,” a book by Allan Metcalf, is a great read. I love to try to figure out where people are from, just from listening to their speech, the inflections, the lilts of their voices, etc. Some people pronouce “pin” and “pen” the same, and also tint/tent. When I moved to Florida 25 years ago and was told to tent my windows, I had no idea what they were talking about. And when someone asked me for a pin, I told him I didn’t have one; I think he thought I was loony because there I was, using mine!

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