A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Unless you’re American Pharoah, who coursed the Belmont Stakes last Saturday for the first Triple Crown in 37 years. This three-year-old colt clearly isn’t just any old horse. But etymologically, a horse is a course. Well, not of course, but maybe.
Horses may race young, but the word horse runs old: The Oxford English Dictionary records horse (as hors) all the way back to around 825. Etymologists take the word back to the Proto-Germanic root for the animal, *horso-, hitching it there. But some ride off into a further sunset: the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kers-, “to run.” This root equipped Latin with currere (“to run”), which, in turn, saddled English with all sorts of words: car, charge, corridor, current, cursor, discourse, intercourse, and, of course, course, among others. A horse is a course, of course of course.
Yet Ernest Klein suggests that a different feature defined horse. He suggests that horse may come from the Proto-Germanic *hrossa-, from the pre-Germanic *qru-ta-s, formed on a “lost verb,” “to jump,” from a PIE root meaning the same. If this is the case, horse, then, is “the jumping animal.”
Old English also had a horse of a different etymological color: eoh, a word cognate to equus, the Classical Latin for “horse” and source of equine and equestrian. At root is the PIE *ekwo-, “horse,” which also stables the Greek ἵππος (hippos, producing hippopotamus, “river horse” and Philip, “fond of horses.”) Like horse “the jumper” or horse “the runner,” *ekwo– may itself be named for something characteristically equine, as it perhaps derives from the PIE adjective *oku-, “swift.”
The hippopotamus is the “river horse.” Likenesses also give us the sea-horse. And the whale-horse, or walrus, if folk etymology has its way. Walrus comes from the Dutch walrus. The wal- component is indeed related to whale, but the rus– part (cf. German words for horse, like German’s own Ross, hence the name) is probably not etymologically (not to mention zoologically) sound. Etymologists cite confusion between some Scandinavian words naming certain types of whales and the walrus.
While the Greeks may have likened the hippopotamus to a river horse, the ancient Egyptians thought of it as a water-ox, or the p-ehe-mau, which Hebrew probably shaped into behemoth. Fittingly enough, for hippos do have a pretty mean reputation in the wild.
Ancient Egyptian also had pr-ʿo, “great house,” a title given to those kings also of great reputation, pharaohs, partial namesake of American Pharoah. American Pharoah has little in common with walrus–other than being mammals and have a name shaped in error. It all runs full circle. You know, like a racecourse.
Speaking of horses, look out soon for another review of a new title from Skyhorse Publishing, Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh, a book about expressions of animal origin, which includes a whole section on horses.