When listening to a BBC radio phone-in recently, my ears took pause when a caller said “he’s cocked it right up.” Oops! Surely such language is usually followed by an apology on the Beeb?

But fear not, as cock up is not vulgar or rude. You might not care to use it in front of your grandmother, but it is one of our milder bits of slang.

There seem to be several explanations for the origins of the phrase. Possibly British military slang from the 1920s, it may come from the sound a startled pheasant makes before it is caught by a poacher(!), the need to cock a pistol, the cock feather on longbow arrows, the stopcock from a wine or beer barrel, or the upper corner of a ship’s sail. So nobody’s really sure. The word cock in the sense of ‘to stand up’ or ‘bend’ (ie “to cock one’s hat”) dates back to around 1600.

My favourite possibility is that cock up, meaning to bungle or make a mess of, comes from the printing world. In the days of manual typesetting, a letter that was not properly placed on the line so the print came out all wonky was said to be ‘cocked up’. Which sounds like a more plausible explanation.