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John Hancock, fine fettle, chock-full, brat

Created date

May 10th, 2017
Close-up view of John Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence

John Hancock

Born in 1737, American colonist and founding father John Hancock was a man of money and action. He put his inherited fortune to use during the Revolutionary War in an effort to oust the British from Boston and, ultimately, the East Coast of North America.

In 1775, the state of Massachusetts elected him a delegate to the second Continental Congress to debate a formal declaration of independence from the mother country. To engage in any such conspiracy was high treason, and to put your name to a related document was proof of guilt. 

This, however, didn’t deter Hancock, who as acting president of the Continental Congress made his flamboyant signature the biggest one on the Declaration of Independence in 1776. That’s why his name has become synonymous with signatures, and why you may be asked for your “John Hancock” the next time you sign a contract.

“They’ll need your John Hancock on your application in order to process it.”

Fine fettle

This is one of the more recondite phrases we’ve covered in this series. While we all know what the word “fine” means, “fettle” may prompt some to scratch their heads. 

Simply put, “fettle” was originally spelled “fetel,” an Old English term for a support belt or the act of girding or preparing oneself for a task. Over time, the spelling changed to “fettle,” and the term eventually referred to maintenance and fit condition. 

That said, to be in “fine fettle” is to be in good shape, which is how we use the phrase today.

“After a good night’s sleep, I woke up feeling in fine fettle.”


The origin of “chock-full” is about as obscure as “fine fettle.” The phrase itself is frequently used to refer to anything filled to capacity.

There’s even a coffee brand called Chock full o’Nuts.

The term dates back to the 1400s and the Middle English word “chokkeful,” which roughly translated to packed or crammed full. Indeed, its variant, “choke,” meant cheek or jaw, and is most likely the basis for our term choke, meaning to strangle.

In short, “chokkeful” referred to something that was filled from cheek to cheek. Throughout the centuries, the Middle English vocabulary gave way to the modified form, “chock.”

“A proper crab cake should be chock-full of lump meat.”


Here’s another contribution from the Old English lexicon. “Brat” is a pejorative term for a poorly behaved youngster.

But as early as the thirteenth century, “brat” was slang for a beggar’s child or a tattered, shabby cloak. Given the word’s historically negative connotation, it rather naturally became a preferred reference to naughty kids.

“The common belief among parents is that a spoiled child will be a brat.”