To Curry Favor

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A reader asks,

Does the expression “Curry Favour” have anything to do with curry?

Short answer: “No.” But the long answer is pretty cool.

The gastronomical word curry derives from a Tamil word for sauce, whereas, the curry in the expression “to curry favour/favor” is a verb meaning “to comb a horse.”

curry (noun): A preparation of meat, fish, fruit, or vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric, and used as a relish or flavoring, especially for dishes composed of or served with rice. Hence, a curry = a dish or stew (of rice, meat, etc.) flavored with this preparation (or with curry-powder).

curry (verb): to rub down a horse with a comb.

The word favor in “to curry favor” is the product of folk etymology. The original expression was “to curry Favel,” in which Favel is the name of a fictional horse.

Satirical allegories featuring anthropomorphized animals were popular in the Middle Ages. The name Favel came into English from the French tale Le Roman de Fauvel, in which a horse named Fauvel parodied the hypocritical behavior of the courtiers and ecclesiastical lords of the French royal court. The horse’s name derives from his color: he’s a “fallow horse.”

As an adjective, fallow refers to a pale brownish or reddish yellow color. It’s probably cognate with Latin pallere, “to be pale.”

Both English and German had an idiom that may have preceded the French tale: “to ride the fallow horse.” The expression meant, “to practice duplicity.”

One academic theory as to why riding a fallow horse was associated with hypocrisy is that the expression may have originated with “the pale horse” in the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation). The rider of the pale horse, “one whose name is Death,” was thought by some commentators to represent the duplicitous Antichrist.

When the word Favel became meaningless to English speakers, they substituted it with the familiar word favor.

In sum, to curry chicken is to cook it with curry. To curry favor is to seek to gain an advantage by means of flattery and hypocrisy. Here are some recent examples of the use of curry in the nonfood sense:

Leadership PACs generally attempt to curry favor with other lawmakers, hoping to win support for legislation or other political aspirations.

”If we change [the law],” Mr. Lynn said, ”we’re going to see politicians running around seeking support of churches and hoping that they can curry favor with those churches by promising them money and favors.”

Not only did he flout those laws in order to curry favor with a prospective employer, but he also illegally disclosed the identity of a whistleblower, as the Complaint alleges.

The lobbying campaign, reconstructed by Newsweek and The Daily Beast through interviews and documents, speaks volumes about the efforts of big business to curry favor, even among perceived enemies. 

Curry may also be followed by approval and good will:

Jorge is explaining to his men that Nikita Khrushchev has permitted a few chosen writers to travel abroad, hoping to curry approval from the world’s cultural elite.

Kuwait used its resources to curry good will among Arab countries, especially Egypt.

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2 thoughts on “To Curry Favor”

  1. “Curry favor” has nothing to do with the seasoning “Curry.” It is a colloquial saying, mostly West Indian/Caribbean, which means something is fixed unreasonably so that the result favors one over another which under normal circumstances where everything was equal, the result would have been different, e.g. a fixed beauty contest.

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