A little history of horse words

It started with ekwos

Modern horses (Equus ferus caballus) were first domesticated on the northern European steppes 6000 years ago by people we identify as the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE). These Proto-Indo-Europeans called their new friend the ekwos. They used it to conquer Europe and Asia and to spread their language firstly across these continents and ultimately to the world.

Ekwos became the Greek hippos, which has given us: hippodrome – a place where horses run, from hippos + dromos for racetrack. Hippopotamus, or horse of the river comes from hippos + potamos for river. Part of the brain that was thought to resemble the seahorse has become the hippocampus from hippos + campus for sea monster.

The name Phillip is derived from the Greek Philippos meaning friend of horses. By implication, Phillips were of noble blood because only they could afford to own horses.

Ekwos also became the Latin equus which has given us: equine, of or pertaining to horses; equerry, originally an officer in charge of the horses; and equestrian, as of or pertaining to horse-riding.

The dignified Roman word equus was reserved for the best animals. The common slang word was caballus, referring to packhorses or work horses and implying they were hacks or nags. Caballus was picked up by Roman soldiers in their campaigns with the barbarian tribes and brought back into Roman language. Caballus became cavallo (Italian), cheval (French) caballo (Spanish), capall (Irish) and ceffyl (Welsh). Cheval, the French word, has given English chivalry, cavalry, cavalcade and cavalier.

Nags and hacks

Nag is a native English word for a small horse and has an unknown origin. A hack is a shortening of hackney, for an ordinary horse, referring to the horse breeding pastures of Hackney near London (and now very much in London). Many  pulled taxi-cabs and the use of hack became associated with hired horses. This led to the identification of hack with being tired and broken down. It was applied to certain types of writers.

There was also an Old English word, eoh, derived from the PIE, ekwos, but it disappeared from the language. Horse is a Middle English word derived from the Old English word, hors. This is the most difficult word of all to trace.

The running animal

Remarkably, horse may also be a word that can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-Europeans. A strong argument is that the word is derived from kurs, the PIE word for run, which was used as a euphemism for horse instead of ekwos. Ekwos may not have been used as the everyday word due to a religious or hunters’ taboo on using the name of the animal.

The argument is that the PIE word kurs became khursa in Proto-Germanic which gave Old Norse, hross, Middle Dutch ros, German Roß and, of course, Old English, hors. Kurs also became the Latin currere, meaning to run and also gave rise to our Modern English hurry!

So while we wonder at the skills of equestrians as they ride their horses (Equus ferus caballus) around the hippodrome we should remember that the words we are using have their origins at least as long ago as there have been horsemen.