Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Equus caballus is our starting phrase today, the zoological name of the common horse. Both the genus name, Equus, and the species name, caballus, are Latin.

Equus is the classical Latin word for horse, from which descend English words like equine, equestrian and equitation ‘the art of riding on horseback.’

Caballus is Vulgar or Street or Low Latin and meant ‘nag,’ spavined old wretch of a horse, the only kind of bedraggled horse poor people might afford in ancient Rome. Caballus is not a native Latin word but was an early borrowing into Latin from a Celtic language encountered during a first incursion by Roman legions into ancient Gaul, heard by soldiers, brought back to Rome as a useful word for nag, and then centuries later exported back to Gaul where it eventually became the French word for horse, cheval.


Equestrian statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza di Campidoglio, Rome

Equine Delvings
An equus was a healthy, well-kept mount bestrode by a free citizen or an aristocratic rider, a horse that a Roman knight might ride into battle in a war of conquest. There was indeed a class, an order, a stratum of Roman society, called equites ‘knights.’ They belonged to an order between the senatorial and the ordinary citizen and were the class from which originally the cavalry was drawn. Incidentally, the English word cavalry stems from caballus, as we explain below. The equites’ reward for supplying mounted warriors was exclusive right to certain financial and judicial offices in the government of Rome. However lofty the social heights they attained later under the Roman empire, equites began in the earliest days of the kingdom of Rome as citizen members of a Roman family who could afford, when summoned by their king, to send at least one horse and one rider into military service.

Equus, the classical Latin word, gained currency in present-day English because of British dramatist Peter Schaffer’s 1973 play and 1977 film “Equus,” an examination of the quite modern madness of a stableboy who blinds six horses. The play is a very dubious defense of schizophrenic excess, here labeled as an act of worshipful ecstasy by the usual perp, an artistic British liberal, namely, playwright Shaffer, busily romanticizing insanity as a brave exceeding of the humdrum bounds of daily life. Such a creaking, 300-year-old Romantic fallacy is pernicious nonsense spread by those who have never watched a loved one’s life dissolve in madness, and so, as artists, they can lounge on the comfy couch of non-involvement and fire forth cavalier suppositions about insanity, iron darts untempered in the forge of reality. But for all that, “Equus” is a play worth seeing and reading. Below is a poster for a recent British staging.

A Nagging Word's Story

So caballus was soldiers’ common Latin for ‘nag,’ a broken down horse. Around 500 or 600 CE most Latin speakers who used caballus to mean ‘horse’ would also know the ‘upper-class’ word, equus. So why did they choose to use caballus instead of equus? They were Roman army grunts. Through all of history, in every language we know of, rough soldiers’ slang criticizes and grouses about everything concerning their army and its supplies. In that mode of complaint, any army horse is ‘a nag,’ a caballus, never a noble steed. Soon all horses are caballi and the word equus fades from daily use, left behind and forgotten in the older stalls of the verbal stable and retrieved in modern languages as a strictly upper-class word used by rich riders who, of a morning, equitate.

How the Romance Languages Formed from Latin
The Romans called their best Latin urbanitas ‘Latin spoken in the city,’ from urbs ‘city,’ hence English words like urban and urbanity. The urbs, above all others for Romans, was of course Rome. The word is still heard and seen in our times in the traditional beginning of papal proclamations from the Vatican, Urbi et Orbi ‘to the city (Rome) and to the world,’ originally shouted by a herald before certain Easter and Christmas blessings by the pope at St. Peter's Square.

Latin Transforms into Early French
A Roman general, speaking what the Romans called urbanitas, might say in formal Latin, “Duces equum tuum?” “Are you bringing your horse?”

An ordinary, uneducated infantryman would speak in the Vulgar Latin of Roman soldiers and he might have asked the same question by saying something like “*Duc’s caballu(m) tu(um)” “You bringin’ yer nag?”

A few hundred years later, say, 700 CE, as the dawn of Romance languages approaches, as spoken Latin evolves into Romanz, the earliest French, that question might have sounded more like his: “*Duse t’ chavalle?” and we can see the first forms of what would become the Romance languages where the word horse is: Spanish caballo, Italian cavallo, and French cheval.

Caballus Derivatives
It is of modest ironic interest that the Latin word for broken-down nag gives us such elevated terms as chivalry, originally French as chevalerie ‘ability to ride a horse well.’ The great French singer Maurice Chevalier had, perhaps, an ancestor who was a chevalier, a knight.

From another French word, cavallery, English took the term cavalry.

The French borrowed cavallery from Italian, where it is cavalleria, well known in the title of a great Italian opera, an 1890 masterwork by Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana ‘countryside chivalry.’ The Italian word descends from a Late Latin word for horseman, caballarius. Mascagni found the plot in a popular short story by Giovanni Verga. About one hundred years later, film director Francis Ford Coppola ended his mafia saga in “The Godfather III” with a long, exquisitely edited opera house sequence in which the concluding scenes and magisterial music of the Mascagni opera are intercut with the deaths of members of the Corleone family. “Godfather III” is a deeply flawed film but this terminal sequence is brilliant, as moviegoers watch Coppola’s masterful employment of some of Sergei Eisenstein's ‘montage as collision’ techniques.

Quebec Note
Canadians will take note that cheval, the French word for horse gives les Québécois the name of their provincial slang, joual. The name of the patois, joual, is a Quebec pronunciation of the standard French word cheval.

Equisetum: Equus Derivative
Beyond equestrian and equitation, there are few common derivatives of equus in English, a testament to how thoroughly caballus replaced equus in all the Romance languages and in the words English borrowed from Romance languages. But one delightful exception is the botanical name of the marsh horsetail, the widespread ‘scouring rush’ found in most boggy or mildly damp areas of the northern hemisphere. The botanical genus of horsetail is Equisetum, literally ‘horse bristle,’ from equus Latin ‘horse’ + saetum Latin ‘bristle,’ or ‘hair of a horse’s tail.’ The common North American English name of scouring rush points to its use by the earliest European pioneers of North America as a pot cleaner. Grease could be cleaned out of iron frying pans by wadding several horsetails together and scrubbing and scouring with the bristly weed.

Three Surprising Horse Etymologies
That mainstay of French bathrooms, the bidet, now slowly conquering North America too, comes from a French word for a small pony, that is, an object easily straddled or mounted.

Now meaning offensive to taste or in disrepair or cheap, the adjective tacky began as an American noun tackey, a nag, an inferior horse, much like a caballus. Tackey first appears in American print in 1800 meaning ‘a cheap pony.’

This word for a wooden frame that supports the canvas as a painter works on it entered English from the Dutch word ezel ‘ donkey’ or ‘ass.’ It is similar to the German Esel and the etymology consists of *es, one of the early Germanic words for horse plus the common Indo-European suffixal diminutive -l, so that the semantic thrust of Esel is ‘small horse.’

Is that sufficient horseyness for today, class? Yea or neigh? Neigh? Then how about. . .?

the Attic Greek Word for Horse

Ancient Greek Horse Culture

Affected Naming Customs

Were those ancient Greeks gaga about horses? One has merely to learn the meaning of many aristocratic Greek personal names, while noting that the Greek word for horse is hippos.

Hippopotamus is Greek for ‘horse of the river’ (Greek potamos ‘river’). A hippodrome is a place where horses run (dromos Greek ‘racetrack, running track for men or horses’).

Part of the human brain is named after a sea-horse. It is hippocamp or hippocampus, from the name for a much larger ancient Greek sea-monster called hippokampos. It had the head and front part of a horse and the tail of a dolphin.   

First hippocampus became the name of the little aquatic fish cuties, the sea-horses. Then anatomists, picking apart a brain, decided that ridges running along the bottom of the lateral ventricles in the brain looked a bit like little wiggly sea-horses.

Horse & Human Names
As you will see below, the given names of the ancient Greek upper classes were indicative of having enough wealth to be the equivalent of a knight, that is, rich enough to supply a horse or two during wartime. The highest of the four Athenian social classes was composed of persons who could bear the rank of hippeus, sometimes translated ‘knight’ but it meant the family could afford to maintain warhorses in time of conflict.

The botanical name of the amaryllis, a large beautiful bulbous flowering plant, derives from the Greek word for knight. It is Hippeastrum ‘knight's star’ from Greek hippeus ‘knight’ + astron ‘star.’

Contrary to the scribblings of many gardening amateurs, it does NOT mean 'horse-star' in reference to the flower's large size. That would have been *hippoastrum, an ungainly verbal clumsiness. Hippeastrum was named to suggest the status of the bloom, a flower worthy of a knight. How do we know it is knight's star, aside from the obvious linguistic clues? We know who named the plant. In 1837 the Honorable Reverend William Herbert, Dean of Manchester, dubbed it hippeastrum.

Wikipedia says “It seems likely however, as William Herbert was both a clergyman and something of an expert on early medieval history, that he chose the name because of the plants striking resemblance to the morning star, a medieval weapon used by horsemen. A version of the weapon was also called a holy water sprinkler, an ecclesiastical object the Dean would have been familiar with.”

I think that is a preposterous guess, Wiki. First of all, a flower-loving English parson would have been well-enough acquainted with classical Greek to pluck a Greek term for morning star from his reading both of the classical Greek canon and of the New Testament in Koine Greek. Venus is the morning star and one Greek word for the planet is the lovely Eophoros, literally ‘bringer of the dawn.’ Another term naming the morning star, but one already too widely used perhaps to become the flower name, was Phosphoros, literally ‘bearer or bringer of light.’

Secondly, the weapon was brutally ugly, invented to shatter human skulls and bore not the faintest resemblance to a flower. No peony-sniffing parson worth his garden spade would ever even think of that hideous weapon while contemplating the glory of a newly bloomed amaryllis. Really! Quite unaccountably stolid of that Wikipedia contributor. Quite Wik-dick-ulous.

One-upmanship in Ancient Greece
Horse ownership jibed with ancient Greek social status. History's first, known, great comic playwright was the Greek dramatist Aristophanes. In his comedy “The Clouds” a character named Pheidippides is a pushy nouveau riche and wants to appear of aristocratic orgin. So the upstart inserts the Greek root for ‘horse’ into his peasant grandfather's name, and plain old Pheidos becomes Pheidippos, so that he, the grandson, is Pheidippides, a noble and dulcifluent moniker indeed, and phoney as a chastity affidavit from Zeus.

This elongation of a personal name by spurious addenda is still with us. Von (it means ‘of [the family of]’) may betoken a German family who were medieval knights. Some of these Reiterfamilien had magnificently pompous names for their individual family members who were christened with names like Gotboldus Benedictus Gumprecht von Hohenstolz! An actual recorded German name. Yes, he was a three-foot dwarf who followed mares into the stable, but he owned the castle.

And that little German genitive preposition von was important. Consider the German pig farmer who adds von to his last name in hopes of elevating his ancestry by means of language instead of noble birth, so that Fritz Scheisskopf becomes Fritz von Scheisskopf. How much more pleasing to a not-very-bright vanity! Many a French de in a surname was added to family papers one dark night in a cowshed. In the annals of arriviste duplicity, there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Greek Personal Names of Horsey Provenance

Philippos - Greek philos ‘lover’ + hippos ‘horse,’ hence lover of horses, and this bestows to posterity the still common given name Phillip, used in almost all the languages of the West and also an element in hundreds of western surnames like Philipson, Phipps, Filipacci, Philippopoulos and de la Philippe.

Hippolyta – literal Greek meaning ‘she who looses the reins of horses; developed meaning ‘a fine horsewoman, a fine rider’

Hippocrates– The father of Greek medicine has an old horse-culture tribal name that means literally ‘he who rules horses.’ The acquired meaning implies that he is a good rider or that he owns plenty of horses, a certain sign of wealth in ancient Greece. Another common Greek name that signified similar equine mastery was Hipparchos ‘horse-leader.’

Hippias – Greek ‘horse-guy’

Dorippe– Greek ‘horse gift’ from doron ‘gift’ + hippos ‘horse,’ perhaps an early dowry name for a Dorian girl about to marry

Kratippe – Greek kratos ‘power’ + hippos ‘horse’ literally ‘she who has power over horses,’ a valuable lady in ancient Greece.

Aristippos - Greek aristos ‘best’ + hippos ‘horse = ‘he who owns the best horses’

Xanthippe - That nag of a wife to the philosopher Socrates had a name that means literally ‘yellow horse’ but the semantic implication is a horse with a notably beautiful off-white coat, so a better English translation of Xanthippe would be mine, ‘buttermilk mare.’ One of history's most notorious scolds may have been the daughter of a man named Xanthippos or she may have been christened with the name because of fair skin or hair, a modest novelty in ancient Greece.

Extinct Horse Names
The technical names in paleozoology of several extinct ancestors of the modern horse are formed from the Greek root hippos too. Eohippus is an early horse (Greek eos ‘dawn’ ‘early time’). An extinct relative of the horse is the tiny hipparion (Greek ‘pony’ from hippos ‘horse’ + -arion a common diminutive suffix for nouns, hence literally ‘small horse.’

Okay, pardners, Wild Bill thinks we've ridden this pony to the end of the trail. See yuh back at the cookhouse for grub!

Bill Casselman, February 16, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


Head of Selene's horse, upon whom the ancient Greek moon goddess rode across the night sky, from the east pediment of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, 447-432 BCE, now in the British Museum, London, England

Increase your understanding of English by learning Latin and Greek words for horse which have entered modern use