“By hook or by crook” means “by any method necessary,” suggesting that you should do whatever you have to, whether or not ethical and legal, in order to accomplish a goal.
The origin of the phrase is obscure, with several different explanations and little evidence to support any particular one over the others. The phrase has endured at least partly because hook and crook rhyme, and we humans love rhymes as much as we do alliteration.
The first substantiated example is from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, 1390: “What with hepe and what with croke they [false Witness and Perjury] make her maister ofte winne.” (“Hepe” being the medieval name for a curved bill-hook.) As for modern usage, the earliest example found is in Philip Stubbes’ The Anatomie of Abuses, 1583: “Either by hooke or crooke, by night or day.”
Of the four most common theories, the first is that “by hook or by crook” derives from the ancient English custom of allowing peasants to gather from royal forests any deadwood they could pull down with a shepherd’s crook or cut with a reaper’s bill-hook. William Cobbett recorded this feudal custom in the 1820s, although the custom itself is much older than that reference.
The second theory suggests that the phrase comes from the name of an ancient lighthouse, Hook Head on the east side of Waterford harbor, and Crooke, the village on the other side of Waterford channel in Ireland. Cromwell is supposed to have said that Waterford would fall “by Hook or by Crooke,” because he intended to land his army at one of those two places during the siege of the town in 1649/50.
The third theory says the phrase derives from an English judge, Sir George Croke. Croke (or Crook) was on the bench during the reign of Charles I (1600-1649) and became known for his refusal to accept the legality of a ‘Ship Money’ tax imposed by Charles without the consent of Parliament. It was a common saying said that ship money “may be gotten by Hook (by force), but not by Crook.”
The fourth theory suggests the phrase derives from an article dated 15 Feb. 1851 in the scholarly research publication Notes and Queries. The article linked it with the problem of establishing exact locations of plots of land after the great fire of London in 1666. “The surveyors appointed to determine the rights of the various claimants were Mr. Hook and Mr. Crook, who by the justice of their decisions gave general satisfaction to the interested parties, and by their speedy determination of the different claims, permitted the rebuilding of the city to proceed without the least delay. Hence arose the saying above quoted, usually applied to the extrication of persons or things from a difficulty.”
Suggestions two, three, and four have clear links to “by hook or by crook” but are based on events that happened much later than the phrase’s first appearance in print. Of all the suggested theories, “wood gathering with hooks and crooks” has to be a strong favorite.
And I am about to go and gather groceries. Hooks and crooks might be handy, but they have, sadly, been replaced by credit cards.