Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Harrowing History of Hearse

It started because I had a mental lapse and couldn't remember how to spell "hearse" while playing a word game.

That led to noticing the oddness of its spelling vs. pronunciation, which meant I had to look up its etymology, and that gave me this from etymonline:

c. 1300 (late 13c. in Anglo-Latin), "flat framework for candles, hung over a coffin," from Old French herse, formerly herce "large rake for breaking up soil, harrow; portcullis," also "large chandelier in a church," from Medieval Latin hercia, from Latin hirpicem (nominative hirpex) "harrow," a rustic word, from Oscan hirpus "wolf," supposedly in allusion to its teeth. Or the Oscan word may be related to Latin hirsutus "shaggy, bristly."

The funeral display is so called because it resembled a harrow (hearse in its sense of "portcullis" is not attested in English before 15c.). Sense extended to other temporary frameworks built over dead people, then to "vehicle for carrying a dead person to the grave," a sense first recorded 1640s. 
So, historically, a hearse is less a vehicle for carrying a body than a frame for candles that looks like a harrow, which is somehow similar to a wolf's teeth. And a harrow looks like a portcullis, by the way, which I never thought about before, either. But the most common usage of harrowing as a verb these days has nothing to do with dragging the soil in preparation for planting, but instead means "acutely distressing."

Another bunch of reasons to love the English language.

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