Where Did The Word "Spatchcock" Come From?

Deary me! Mention that you are serving spatchcock chicken, and the ladies blush, the men frown and the children giggle. However, it is a real word that has been around since the 18th century. Numerous dictionaries agree on its usage as a noun and as a verb.

Below we have a list of items from the web using the word, examples of its usage in the United Kingdom and we have entries from a wide variety of dictionaries, both online and traditional.

Click On The Play Button To Hear The Pronunciation
Of "Spatchcock" According To Yahoo

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Of "Spatchcock" According To Bill Gates

[Usage On The Internet]   [Usage In The U.K.]   [Dictionary Definitions]  
[Cookbook References]   [Is It The Same As Butterflying?]

Usage Of The Word On The Internet

Numerous Sources

There are numerous references on the web that use the word as a noun meaning a young chicken, no more than 6 weeks old. Interestingly, we have been unable to find any dictionary definitions which give this meaning. (See below for dictionary references.)

The Boston Globe

A split, flattened chicken roasts in considerably less time -- much as a butterflied leg of lamb cooks more quickly than the whole leg. "Spatchcock" is the term used in a professional kitchen.

The Boston Globe

Cutting a chicken in half for broiling is almost as routine as chopping an onion. But keep the halves together in that same flattened position, and it looks as if you've done something complicated to the little bird.

Think of it as butterflying the chicken. The real term is to "spatchcock." Alan Davidson explains in The Oxford Companion to Food: "The theory is that the word is an abbreviation of 'dispatch the cock,' a phrase used to indicate a summary way of grilling a bird after splitting it open down the back and spreading the two halves out flat." Davidson speculates that spatchcocked birds originated in Ireland. He has noticed them in Irish cookbooks that date to the 18th century.

Besides making an intriguing presentation and being simple to carve, a spatchcocked bird requires less time in the oven. That means that the breast meat won't be dry. It's also easy to make a pocket between the skin and breast meat to stuff the bird with a protective layer of vegetables and seasonings.

In Simple French Food, the late Richard Olney wrote about stuffing a flattened chicken with grated zucchini mixed with ricotta and Parmesan cheeses. Olney prepared the recipe on his book-promotion tour in the early 1970s, and for a while it became popular among cooks.

We still see spatchcocked chicken on menus around town, sometimes just asimple flattened bird with a mixture of herbs tucked underneath the skin. It always feels new.


According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a "spatchcock" is simply "a chicken or especially a game-bird split open and grilled after a simple and speedy method of preparation." In other words, lunch. The origin of "spatchcock" seems to be under debate. The folks at Oxford think it's Irish, and a combination of "dispatch" (as in "quick") and "cock," but the Random House Webster's College Dictionary dismisses that theory and ties the word to "spitchcock," a dish made with fried eels. Even if one likes fried eels (which I do not), this isn't very useful because no one seems to know where "spitchcock" came from, either.

Helen's British Cooking Site

'Indian mode and sea fashion' adds the Victorian colonel's wife from whose cookbook this particular recipe comes. The word spatchcock comes from the dish - a happy rooster one minute and a rather flat-looking grilled chicken the next - all done with great despatch. This simple recipe was a favourite with army officers sent to India by sea, which used to entail several weeks' long voyage. Coops of chickens were kept on board and were a great treat for the bored passengers when despatched and cooked in this way.'

Rotisol Asia Rotisseries

'New alternative "SPATCHCOCK" chicken rotisseries allow "open"-style cooking. Rotisol rotisseries are equipped with rotary/alternating motors, allowing a choice of cooking styles. In the normal ROTARY setting, the rotisserie will cook spitted chickens perfectly. In the ALTERNATING setting, the machine allows users to cook chicken open "SPATCHCOCK" style.'

Usage Of The Word In The United Kingdom

Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, 1999 Oxford University Press

Winner of the James Beard Foundation Book Award, Gourmet Magazine calls this book "A food book for all time. A must-have for any serious food follower."
"Spatchcock, a culinary term, met in cookery books of the 18th and 19th centuries, and revived towards the end of the 20th century, which is said to be of Irish origin. The theory is that the word is an abbreviation of 'dispatch cock', a phrase used to indicate a summary way of gilling a bird after splitting it open down the back and spreading the two halves out flat. See also, however, spitchcock."

"Spitchcock, an obsolete culinary term which applied to a method of grilling pieces of eel after dressing them with breadcrumbs and chopped herbs. But the matter is obscure (Hanne Glasse, 1747, spells the word 'pitchcock' and omits the herbs) and there is a suspicious resemblance between this term and spatchcock."

Nigella Bites

This reference is interesting because Nigella Lawson is a popular host of English cookery television programs. It has been said that the English will adamantly tell you that the only definition of "spatchcock" is a young chicken, no more than 6 weeks old. Nigella uses the word both as an adjective and a verb in her recipe for Spatchcocked Birds:
Nigella: "For that point in the evening when people need to hunker down to some serious eating, you do need to provide something a little more substantial than plates for picking from. This is what I roll out during a summer's evening barbecuing. You can stick with just chicken if you want, but I've suggested poussins and quail as well, just because I like anything that produces that welcoming sense of the groaning board - and plus, it gives me the opportunity to suggest more than one marinade.

The marinades themselves are to be regarded as the loosest blueprint. Use the flavourings you like, remembering that you need oil of some sort to prevent the meat from drying out and an acid- vinegars, citrus fruits - to tenderise it. The spatchcocked birds don't need to be cooked on the barbecue; an oven preheated to 220 or 240, gas mark 7 or 8, will do just fine. And because the birds are spatchcocked - that's to say, cut on one side and opened out, like a book - they need much less cooking time than surgically uninterfered with poultry, which can be useful if you've got time in advance for the spatchcocking and marinading and not much time on the night for actual cooking.

Any good butcher will spatchcock the birds for you, or you could ask the butchery section at the supermarket to do it, but it's easy enough for you to manage yourself at home. Just get a pair of poultry shears or tough scissors (I use a pair sold by someone on one of those door-to-door yellow duster trails made for cutting through tins and tough stuff) and lay the bird, breast side down, on a surface and cut through all along one side of the backbone. Then cut along the other side and - hey presto - the backbone can be removed and you then turn the bird other way up and press down as you open it out. You have in front of you a spatchcocked bird, ready for its marinade."

Ainsley Harriot, BBC Celebrity Cook
http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/database/spatchcockedlemonpou_5188.shtml font>

Ainsley Harriot is the host of the popular BBC cooking show, "Ready, Steady, Cook". Here is another example of the British using the word "spatchcock" in accordance with the dictionary definitions:
Spatchcocked Lemon Poussins

1. To spatchcock the poussins: place them breast-side down on a chopping board. Cut down either side of the backbone with poutry shears or a sharp pair of kitchen scissors and lift it out.
2. Turn the poussins over, open them out and press down firmly along the breast bone until they lie flat.

Sophie Grigson, host of Great Foods, produced in cooperation with the BBC

Sophie Grigson is another British celebrity chef who hosts the West 175 production, Great Food. From her recipe for Barbecued Quail with Herbes de Provence and Anchoïade :
"There's no point fiddling around too much with quail. They are too small for fussy preparations unless you happen to have a huge team of helpers in the kitchen. I once boned, stuffed, and rolled a brace of quail, but what a performance for something that disappeared in a couple of mouthfuls! The one and only bit of fiddling around that I consider worthwhile is spatchcocking or in other words, opening the quails out flat, bones and all, so that they can be broiled or barbecued quickly and evenly. It hardly takes any time and the results are very good. Here, the quails are flavored with herbes de Provence and served with a powerful anchovy and garlic sauce.

"Spatchcock the quails. Rub the crushed garlic over them and sprinkle with the herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper. Squeeze the lemon juice over them and rub it in. Leave, covered, for a couple of hours. "

Waitrose Limited http://www.waitrose.com/food_drink/Recipes/glossary/foodglossary/Chicken.asp

Waitrose is one of the UK's finest grocers, owned by the John Lewis Partnership. Waitrose holds a Royal Warrant with Her Majesty The Queen. A Royal Warrant is a mark of recognition to people or companies who have regularly supplied goods or services for at least five years to certain members of the Royal Family. They have always been regarded as a mark of excellence and quality, and are highly prized. Waitrose previously held a longstanding Warrant with Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. The following information comes from their website's glossary entry for chicken:
"....Ready-spatchcocked poussins (where the bird is split and flattened) are available in Waitrose."

"Poussins are usually roasted, spatchcocked poussins can also be grilled."

"To spatchcock a poussin, cut through the backbone with a sharp knife and open the bird out with the legs uppermost."

"To cook a spatchcocked poussin, place in a roasting tin and brush with melted butter and season to taste. Cook under a preheated moderate grill for 40-45 minutes, cook thoroughly until the juices run clear when pierced with a fork."

Dictionary Definitions:

Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd edition 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt):

"The Oxford English Dictionary is the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million words, both present and past. It traces the usage of words through 2.5 million quotations from a wide range of international English language sources, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books."

  • n. A fowl split open and grilled after being killed, plucked, and dressed in a summary fashion. Originated in Irish use, later chiefly Anglo-Indian.


    1785, A classical of the vulgar tongue, - Francis Gross, editor
    'Spatch cock, abbreviation of dispatch cock, an Irish dish upon any sudden occasion. It is a hen just killed from the roost, or yard, and immediately skinned, split and broiled.'

    1875 - The Hawaiian archipelago: six months among the palm groves...of the Sandwich Islands, Miss Isabella L. Bird
    'Supper was ready for us;...the spatchcock and salmon reminded me of home.'

  • tr.v. To cook as, or in the manner of, a spatchcock. Hence, spatchcocked.


    1865, Pall Mall Gazette, 3 August 2,
    'Those who have never eaten spatchcocked grouse can hardly be said to know the real flavor of the bird.

    1879, A Guide to Indian Household Management, Mrs. A G F Elliot James
    'You sit down...to your fowl--spatch-cocked of course, that being the natives' favorite way of dressing the tempting dish.'

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by C. T. Onion, 1974, Oxford University Press

"...the most comprehensive etymological dictionary of English ever to be published." --Stephanie Gold, Amazon.com
"spatch•cock (orig. in Ir. use, later Anglo-Indian) fowl prepared by being summarily split open and grilled. XVIII. Connected by Grose with dispatch, but cannot be dissociated from spitchcock eel cut into short pieces, dressed, and cooked (XVI), of unkn. origin."


n. spatch•cock A dressed and split chicken for roasting or broiling on a spit.
tr.v. spatch·cocked, spatch·cock·ing, spatch·cocks 1. To prepare (a dressed chicken) for grilling by splitting open. 2. To introduce or interpose, especially in a labored or unsuitable manner: “Some excerpts from a Renaissance mass are spatchcocked into Gluck's pallid Don Juan music” (Alan Rich).

[Perhaps alteration of spitchcock, a way of cooking an eel.]


spatch•cock (spach'kok") n. a fowl that has been dressed and split open for grilling.
v.t. 1. to prepare and roast (a fowl) in this manner. 2. to insert or interpolate, esp. in a forced or incongruous manner: Additional information has been spatchcocked into the occasional random footnote.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
While the American Heritage Dictionary itself is not on the web, several online dictionaries use it as their source.

spatch·cock (spchkk) n.A dressed and split chicken for roasting or broiling on a spit.
tr.v. spatch·cocked, spatch·cock·ing, spatch·cocks 1. To prepare (a dressed chicken) for grilling by splitting open. 2. To introduce or interpose, especially in a labored or unsuitable manner: "Some excerpts from a Renaissance mass are spatchcocked into Gluck's pallid Don Juan music" (Alan Rich).

[Perhaps alteration of spitchcock, a way of cooking an eel.]

WordNet 1.6, Princeton University

spatch·cock n : flesh of a chicken (or game bird) split down the back and grilled (usually immediately after being killed).
v 1: prepare for eating if or as if a spatchcock, of foul 2: interpolate or insert into a sentence or story, as of words.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary
While Webster's Unabridged Dictionary itself is not on the web, several online dictionaries use it as their source.

spatch·cock (Spatch"cock`) n. See Spitchcock.

spitch·cock (Spitch"cock`) n. (Cookery) An eel split and broiled.
v. t. [1st spit + cock.] (Cookery) To split (as an eel) lengthwise, and broil it, or fry it in hot fat.

Dictonary of Food And Nutrition

Small birds split down the back and flattened before grilling. Spitchcock is eel treated similarly.

Forthright's Favorite Words

spatchcock (spach'kok) v or n (English, probably from dispatch and cock) To insert into a text too hurriedly or inappropriately; a fowl stuffed and cooked immediately after killing. This is probably my favourite word of all time. Though there's little use for it any more as a noun, the idea of hurriedly killing, stuffing and cooking a bird has enormous metaphorical value. As a verb, spatchcock is a term that should be picked up and used by every editor who has ever had to read a manuscript that has been prepared in such a manner.

Hutchinson Dictionary Of Difficult Words

spatchcock n. roughly prepared and cooked fowl; v.t. prepare and cook as this; interpolate unnecessarily or inappropriately; patch in or together.

The History Of English Cookery

pitchcock Properly spitchcock, a verb referring to a way of preparing eels by cutting them into pieces, dressing them with breadcrumbs and chopped herbs and then grilling or frying them. Thus the OED. Hannah Glasse, 92, omits the herbs and takes the word to mean grilling pieces of eel, since she gives a similar but separate recipe for frying eel. (There was another word, spatchcock, apparently of Irish origin and meaning a way of grilling pieces of fowl.)(Glasse, 1747)

pitchcot (to pitchcock): see under SPITCHCOCK. (Richard Bradley, 1736)

The Century Dictionary, 1898, Volume VII, Page 5800

Lest anyone think that the usage of spatchcock as a verb, etc. is some newfangled politically correct notion, we offer this final entry. In 1882, the Century Company, publishers of Century Magazine, undertook to produce "a work of...transcendant literary importance", "an authority which will hereafter be...the standard of English spelling and usage." Thus was produced the 10-volume dictionary, cyclopedia and world atlas known as The Century Dictionary. Here is a scan of the entry for "spatchcock":
And here is a scan from page 5844 where you will find the entry for "spitchcock":

The Encarta Online Dictionary

And how could any discussion of anything be complete without asking Bill Gates to sound off about the topic? Here is the entry from the world according to Bill:
spatch·cock [ spách kòk ]

noun (plural spatch·cocks) COOKING split bird for cooking: a chicken or other fowl that is split, dressed, and broiled or roasted on a spit

transitive verb (past spatch·cocked, past participle spatch·cocked, present participle spatch·cock·ing, 3rd person present singular spatch·cocks) COOKING prepare fowl for roasting: to prepare a chicken or other fowl for roasting by splitting it open

[Late 18th century. Origin uncertain: perhaps an alteration of spitchcock prepared eel, of unknown origin.]

Cookbook References:

Steven Raichlen
Cutco Cutlery Advisory Board member and author of How To Grill, The Barbecue! Bible, BBQ USA, Beer Can Chicken, and several other cooking books.

"I like pollo al mattone (Italian chicken grilled under a brick) for four reasons. It's quick and easy to make. It looks great. It produces the most crackling crisp skin and tender juicy meat you can imagine. And, above all, it allows you to use the word spatchcock which is reason enough for preparing it." -- Steven Raichlen, Beer Can Chicken

"The curious French name poulet en crapaudine (chicken in the style of a toad) refers not to its seasonings (although you could use them for frog's legs) but to the way the chicken is cut so that it opens up flat like a book. To the French, this vaguely looks like a frog, and I agree. However, I'm a bigger fan of the English word for this --spatchcocking. -- Steven Raichlen, Beer Can Chicken

"A chicken or game hen that has been spatchcocked has been partially boned and butterflied(spread open)." -- Steven Raichlen, The Barbecue! Bible

"This recipe calls for spatchcocking the chicken, a technique that allows you to grill a whole chicken using the direct method. Removing the backbone and breastbone lets you open up the chicken to lay it flat like a book on the grill. -- Steven Raichlen, BBQ USA

"While the indirect grill and rotisserie methods are great for roasting a whole chicken, nothing can beat the flame-charred smokiness of chicken pieces grilled directly over a fire. There is a way to do this and I learned it in one of the world's most unlikely barbecue destinations: Paris. The technique is spatchcocking and it looks as theatrical as it sounds. You cut out the backbone and open the bird flat, like a book. This makes the whole chicken thin enough to grill directly over the fire." -- Steven Raichlen, How To Grill

Is It The Same As Butterflying?

The Washington Post

Almost every explanation of spatchcock you see on the web indicates that it is the same as butterflying. But is it? According to Anne Willan, founder of the French cooking school La Varenne, there is a difference:

"To butterfly is to cut a single slit more or less through the middle of a usually boneless piece of meat, poultry, fish, even a vegetable, so it can be opened up in the manner of butterfly wings," she says. "It may be cooked flat or stuffed and reshaped. To spatchcock is much more specific, applied only to poultry as far as I know, and almost always to small birds -- quail, pigeon, small chickens."

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