The public accounts committee has accused the government of failing to make economic plans for a pandemic, and instead making up its response “on the hoof”. But what do hoofs have to do with frantic improvisation? Do horses like jazz?
“Hoof” is an old Germanic word for the horny sheath on the feet of ungulates (“ungula”, in turn, being the Latin for “hoof”). Originally, “on the hoof” described a live animal (one that was standing up) rather than a slaughtered one. The first use of the modern sense – presumably implying instead “at a canter” or “while running” – might have been by Rudyard Kipling. In Something of Myself (1936), he explained how, when editing fiction at a magazine, he decided to write it himself: “Why buy Bret Harte [a popular American humorist], I asked, when I was prepared to supply home-grown fiction on the hoof? And I did.”
For the government’s hastily cobbled-together response to Covid-19, the metaphor “on the hoof” pleasingly echoes its original strategy, which it now denies was ever its strategy (it was), of aiming for “herd immunity” in the population. We might bristle at being portrayed as a nation of cows, but we are surely led by donkeys.
• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.