Michael Quinion delves into it in a uniquely exhaustive manner – so much so that I thought fellow Agorists might enjoy reading his take on the subject in his latest newsletter….
2. Weird Words: Cockaigne
An imaginary land of great luxury and ease.
Cockaigne was the Big Rock Candy Mountain of medieval Europe, where
the living was easy and the land flowed with milk and honey. This
mythical country had houses of barley sugar, roofs of cakes, rivers
of wine, and streets paved with pastry; buttered larks (a delicacy
of the period) fell instead of rain; roast geese passed slowly down
the streets, begging to be eaten; even better, shops provided goods
without asking for payment.
The name turns up first in a thirteenth-century French satirical
poem that refers to the "pais de cocaigne", literally "land of
plenty" (modern French spells it "pays de cocagne" with the same
meaning and also has "vie de cocagne" for a life of pleasure).
Where the word comes from has never been settled to the
satisfaction of scholars, but the many references to sweetmeats in
the poem support the view that the name originated in a Germanic
word for a cake, probably the ancestor of modern German "kuchen".
The idea of Cockaigne was popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, in writing and in illustration (Pieter Bruegel the Elder
painted "Schlaraffenland", the German name for the same place,
which was much later the subject of one of Grimm's fairy tales). An
English poem of about 1305 called "The Land of Cockaign" satirised
the life of monks in the same terms. Two centuries later,
"Lubberland" became popular in England as an alternative (a
"lubber" being a big, clumsy, stupid man who idles his life away,
whose name appears in the sailor's "landlubber" for a clumsy or
To start with, Cockaigne wasn't linked to any place that actually
existed - it was all too obviously an exotic fantasy. However, in
the early years of the nineteenth century it began to be applied to
London, surprisingly so you might think for a noisy, smoky, dirty
city of vast inequalities that so obviously could not be the land
of legend. But it was a joke, of course: where else could Cockneys
live but in Cockaigne?
The names are similar enough that some writers have argued that the
origin of "Cockney" indeed lies in "Cockaigne" and that the link
isn't a joke at all. However, the dates don't fit. It's known that
"Cockney" is from a late Middle English term for a pampered child;
where that comes from is uncertain, but an earlier theory that it's
from "cokeney", a cock's egg, a disparaging name for a small
misshapen egg, isn't now believed either.