From Wimbledon to SCOTUS, court has been busy this past week. And while both courts are arguably the most prestigious on their respective, well, courts, the word court is humbler in its origin.


The English court comes from the Old French, cort, which was naming royal residences by the 12th century. It, in turn, originates in the Latin cohors, contracted to cors. This cohors had a few meanings, including a “retinue,” or, much more specifically, a military unit of 600 men, equivalent to 3 maniples, 6 centuries, or a tenth of a legion, if you care for martial mathematics.

This meaning survives in the English cohort, now often used in educational contexts.

Monarchy and might? Still pretty prestigious.

 But how about “barnyard” and other areas where livestock were kept? For, at the heart of court is “yard.” The Proto-Indo-European root is *gher-, a fertile base meaning “to grasp” or “enclose.”

In Latin’s cohors, we see *gher in the word’s second element: co-, “together,” and hors, from hortusmeaning “garden.” Perhaps you can see the connection to horticulture. So, cohors literally denotes “something enclosed together,” yielding both an enclosure, like a “barnyard,” or people grouped together, like a “retinue” of soldiers.

The French language of the court gave English: courtesy, originally the kind of behavior expected at the court; curtsy, originally a gender-neutral display of respect at court formed off a variant of courtesycourtierfrom a verb “to frequent a court”; courtesan, via the Italian cortigiana, a “woman of the court,” though also “prostitute”; and to court, from an expression for paying homage at a court. And the name Curtis is essentially courteous. Courtney, however, is unrelated.

Cortege, from the Italianand curtilage are yet more derivatives.

In the Middle Ages, courts took on their judicial senses; in the Renaissance, their sports, originally referring to tennis.


As I mentioned, *gher was, aptly, a productive root.

In the Germanic branch of Indo-European, *gher yielded English’s girdgirt, and girthas well as garden and the later component of kindergartenAsgard, mythological home to some very powerful Norse gods, would be nothing without it. (We saw the origin of the first part, As-, in the post on Oscar.)

In the Balto-Slavic branch, *gher has helped to name cities, as we see in the Russian Novogorod and Leningrad or the Serbo-Croatian Belgrade.

Old English had geard, which became and meant “yard” (no relation to the measurement), as well as figures in the latter half of orchardHangar, as in an airplane hangar, may be cognate, too.

Speaking of latter halves, yard keeps busy in English compounds. More specifically, as the so-called “head” of many compounds:

We have backyards and dooryardsscrapyards and junkyardslumberyards and shipyards, farmyards and stockyards. We have schoolyards. We have graveyards. We have vineyards, featuring some real shortening of vowelsWe also have common noun phrases like front yard and railroad yard

And my personal favorite? Courtyard. Which,  if you will, is an etymological pleonasm–as *gher-gher, a redundant expression.

m ∫ r ∫

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