Daily Archives: August 16, 2010


There’s a knock on your door. You open it, and there’s a man in uniform holding a package. It’s some high-end steaks you ordered from Japan. You see behind him there’s a horse.

“You came on a horse?” you ask.

“Yes, it’s all part of our delivery,” he says. “But the stable is nearby,” he adds, leaning a bit closer and glancing over his shoulder, as if letting you in on a secret. “Actually we drive the packages to it in a truck.”

You nod knowingly. “A plain white truck, eh?”

“No,” he says with a teeny smirk. “Kinda silvery, in fact. Actually it has our logo on it.”

“D’you drive the truck?”

“No,” he says. “In fact I don’t even drive. I get to the stable by cab.”

“And where does the truck pick up the steaks?”

“At the airport, of course. They’re flown here, air freight.”

“Huh,” you say, taking out your wallet. “Well, what do I owe you for all of that conveyance?”

“Oh, no,” he says, “it’s free delivery.”

So you take the steaks. You thaw one out and grill it. It’s well marbled, but it tastes kinda… livery.

Well, that can’t be a surprise. After all, there was livery all the way along its delivery – found with everything that had a stake in delivering your steaks. The delivery man was wearing livery; the horse was kept in a livery stable; the truck was in livery; the man took a livery cab to work; and the freight airplane, too, was most surely in livery. Verily, there’s no mix-up here!

But, now, how is this word livery delivered to us? Well, originally from Latin liberare “liberate, set free”; that developed into a French verb livrer meaning “hand over” (so, yes, deliver is cognate); what was handed over in this case was provisions – food and clothes to servants, and food to horses. This became our English noun livery. The clothing given to servants ultimately narrowed the sense of livery to “uniform” – which has since broadened to refer to insignia on vehicles: trucks, airplanes, cabs. Meanwhile, a stable that gives food for horses is still a livery stable. And actually since cabs were first drawn by horses, the term livery cab traces back to that livery. Now, of course, the only livery you’ll find with cabs is the insignia, not the nag.

For quite some time I wondered whether this word – which I saw on occasion but generally didn’t hear – was to be pronounced with a “long i” in the first syllable, i.e., a diphthong as in lie. After all, livery can look quite lively, no? And horses are alive. And why would we want a word for regalia to sound like spots seen on old hands? But “short i” it is, rhyming with slivery; if you say livery livery livery et cetera, it can come to sound like relive relive relive after a couple of repetitions.

Is livery flavourful? Well, it gives you the liquid lick of the /l/ and purr of the /r/ along with the lip-biting buzz of the /v/. Its shape starts high and ends low; perhaps the v in the middle is a feed trough or a formal collar. It’s not necessarily a pretty word, but it gets the job done, so I have no beef with it.

Thanks to David Moody for suggesting livery.


Quick – picture a hick. What’s he look like? Chawin’ on a hickory stick, swiggin’ a jug of moonshine (hic!), somewhere out in the boondocks? Or maybe just another country hayseed, watchin’ cows or gawkin’ at city slickers?

At any rate, it’s probably a he – how likely are you to picture a hick chick? But they must have ’em, to make more hicks, right? Well, now, but tell me, what’s your hick’s name? Is it Jebus, or Billy-Ray, or Cooter? No, I’ll tell you what it must be on his birth certificate: Richard.

Well, if he’s the archetypal hick, anyway, it must be. You see, that’s where hick comes from: an old nickname for Richard – matching similar others, such as Hob for Robert and Hodge for Roger. Taken aback by the phonological transformations? Well, we have Dick for Richard, Harry for Henry, Ted for Edward, and Jack for John, so what’s the big surprise? True, this H set of nicknames has dropped out of use in more recent times, but it was common enough (if perhaps somewhat country-ish) in the 16th century, when its general application to country-types seems to have first come about.

This is certainly not the only name to have come to refer to a type. Those who live in and around Durham in England are called Geordies, for instance, from a nickname for George. Irishmen are sometimes called Paddies (but, unlike Geordie, this is rather rude). Cops in some US cities have in the past been called Shamuses due to how many Irishmen there were in the police force. And on and on. Interestingly, although hick really isn’t used as a personal name anymore or for any other competing designation, many people still find country hick worth saying (or writing).

But still, why hick and not, say, hob? Aside from hob having another use (plus the competing taste of hobknob) and hodge being a family name, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt the effect that hick has a short, rough sound, rhyming with stick (and sick and thick) and has that rough, almost inchoate breathing at the start. It also has some vaguer echoes of a more vulgar word. And if you think about terms that have been used to refer to an unsophisticated rural or smalltown location, there are indeed some that make use of such a vulgar term, and also of course some that use hick – such as hick town (the most common collocation of hick). (Interestingly, the use of hick as an adjective seems to be less than 100 years old.)

It is true, mind you, that Hicks is a family name. And so we have at least two towns named Hicksville, which cannot help but be a bit unflattering, I suppose. At least for the three-thousand-some residents of the one in Ohio, which is a 40-minute, 30-mile drive from the nearest city of any note, Fort Wayne, Indiana. You will see, however, that they have a website; you be the judge of whether it helps or hurts the impression: www.hicksvilleusa.com. The residents of the other one may be less concerned about that image, located as they are in the middle of the suburban mega-sprawl of Long Island, about a 45-minute trip on the commuter train from Penn Station – that’s 30 miles, theoretically a 40-minute drive but closer to an hour and a half in heavy traffic.