Monday, 21 December 2009


Here's another word that surprised me. I was expecting it to be linked to cabals, or kabbala, but actually it's derived from something rather different:

caballine adj relating or suited to a horse. [Origin from Latin caballinus, from caballus a horse] Chambers, 1998

Hang on. I thought the word "equine" derived from the Latin, and that "equus" was the Latin word for horse? I've double-checked and this is right. So there was more than one Latin word for horse then? Actually this is starting to feel familiar - the Italian word for horse is "cavallo".

In fact, randomly googling "caballus" leads to the wikipedia page for "horse". Even though the horse's genus is "equus" and its family is "Equidae", the trinomial name (more specific name for the sub-species) is "Equus ferus caballus".

So the biologists used multiple horse words in order to define a horse? My layman's inference is that they've treated equus as a generic "horse-type-creature" word, with caballus being a more specific "horse horse" word. But what's the difference between them? Were they originally different types of horse? And what about "ferus"? I thought it meant iron but apparently that's "ferrum". Now I need a Latin dictionary.

The University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA recommends William Whitaker's Words for Latin grammar and vocabulary. It knows the words I'm looking for so will use it for now until I find a better one (recommendations welcomed). It reveals the following:

equus, equi n horse; steed

caballus, caballi n horse, riding horse, packhorse; (classical usu. an inferior horse, nag)

ferus, feri n wild beast/animal; wild/untamed horse/boar

Okay. So that makes sense then. Equus is the more common word because it means a horse or steed in general, whereas caballus was classically used to describe an inferior horse, hence them using it to narrow down the sub-species of domesticated horses. Similarly, if we then look up a wild horse, it is referred to simply as an "Equus ferus". Mystery solved.

If I try and use the original word in a sentence then, I end up with something like: "Your great-aunt's hat is perfectly caballine." Hmm. Too insulting? Depends on the great-aunt I suppose.

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