livery

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.

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