I’ve always regarded the UK as the birthplace of horse sports. I’m sure that is entirely correct, but it’s how I feel.
I love British TV and all things horsey from the UK but I do question their choice of words when it comes to horse stuff. So, as per, I’m going to try to get to the bottom of some of the main ones we hear floating around.
I don’t even know how to use this properly in a sentence but thankfully, my dictionary was kind enough to provide one for me, “Kept at livery,” which makes little sense to me.
The word livery has been around since the 1300s and means “provisions, such as food, clothing and pay for servants.” It comes from the Old French word liveree, meaning “Clothes delivered by a master to his retinue.” Much as we did as children when we handed over our manure-stained breeches to our long-suffering mothers.
Livery comes to us by way of the Latin word liberare meaning “to set free” and/or “hand over.” Livery kept the meaning “to hand over,” while liberty kept the meaning “to set free.”
In the sense of someone caring for our horses, it goes back to the early 1700s as I suppose we would hand our horses over to someone to care for. Makes sense.
It’s odd that our word for paying someone to feed and house our horses is so different but they mean the same thing. Our word’s etymology is so interesting that travel-writer Bill Bryson even wrote about it in his book, At Home.
Unbelievably, the word board, in the sense we are using it regarding horses, goes all the way back to the 1100s when people used a piece of wood cut flat from which to eat. The rich folk would rest their boards on trestles creating what we know as a table. Thus, the word board was given a new meaning, which was “table”.
For those living a humbler life, a board was rested on the knees of those eating and as such around the 1300s board was given another new meaning which was “food.” This is how we have ended up with the term room and board. Which is essentially what we are paying for when we board our horses out.
All that from a piece of wood.
So, you have decided to board your horse at a livery. Now, what do you say when you are heading out to see your horse?
“I’m heading to the yard.”
“I’m heading to the barn.”
This one is curious. In the UK they will say they are going to the yard rather than the barn. A barn to the British is a place where cows live not horses. While that seems strange to us, we do use the term barnyard, which does sound like a place for livestock, cattle included, but to me, my horse will always be at the barn.
There are several meanings to the word yard, but there are two that fit. The first is from the Old English geard meaning “fenced enclosure, garden or court.” However, yard goes back to the Gothic word gards meaning “house” and garda meaning “stall,” which fits rather well.
The second meaning of the word also comes from Old English, though this time the word is gerd or gierd meaning “rod, staff, stick and/or a measure of length” as well as “a yard of land,” which was roughly 30 acres.
Both of those meanings work, and if you put them together, they work perfectly for today’s meaning in the UK.
Old English strikes again and our word descends from the word bereaern meaning “barley house.” Bere means “barley” and aern means “house, place for storing.”
Interestingly, in Old English, they used to use the word horsern meaning “stable.” Doesn’t that seem like the most obvious word to have kept around?
Nevertheless, we like the word barn, so we use it.
All For Now
I have a long(ish) list of such word choices and will delve into the remaining bunch in the near future. But for now, whether your horse is kept at livery or boarded out you can visit them at the barn or the yard but rarely, if ever, the barnyard. Go figure.