By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today we explore the word coach, and its connections to Plato, sheep, and Darwin’s grandfather.
Like all professional sports teams, the St Louis Rams is overseen by a coach, but in the case of this team the term is particularly appropriate. It all starts with the ancient Hungarian town called Kocs — spelled K-O-C-S. The town name seems to come from the Hungarian word kos which means “ram”, derived ultimately from a Turkish word with the same meaning. The coat of arms reflects this by including a picture of a ram – but it also shows the historical significance of this small Hungarian town, by including the picture of a cart, or, as we call them today, from the name of the town, a coach. Kocs, on the road between Budapest and Vienna, was part of the imperial postal service, connecting Hungary with the rest of Europe, bringing the kind of wagon invented in Kocs to wider attention.
Originally referred to as kocsi szekér, meaning simply “wagon from Kocs”, this new type of carriage was fast and light. This speed and ease of travel made it appealing for men to ride in — they’d traditionally gone on horseback and left the slow carriages to women. And so the coach wagon really caught on, transforming the name of the town into a standard word for the vehicle, not just in English, but in all the other European languages as well.
In English of course we have the general term carriage, which comes from French, and is related to the word carry, coming ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European word *kers- meaning “to run”. This root produces quite a number of derivatives which have to do with “running” that make it into English, such as current, course, and career (originally a road for vehicles). It also gives us ‘car’ from an old Celtic vehicle called a karros, whose name was adopted by the Romans into Latin, which root then produced a number of French and then English derivatives: not only car, but chariot too; and in referring to a wagon for carrying things, it has the additional sense of “load” or “burden” leading to words such as cargo and charge. And, funnily enough, also caricature, in the sense of an exaggeration, or literally an over-loading. But back to coach.
The rise of the coach seems to have come during the reign of Matthias Corvinus, who was king of Hungary from 1458 to 1490. Matthias was deeply into the new renaissance learning. A real book worm, he created a library, the Bibliotheca Corviniana, second in size only to the Vatican library, and an inspiration to Lorenzo de’ Medici in his own Greek and Latin library collection. And given that the whole renaissance thing was kicked off by the Italians, Matthias was naturally a real Italo-phile, promoting renaissance Italian art and scholarship in his kingdom. Matthias hobnobbed with many prominent renaissance artists and intellectuals, including one Marsilio Ficino, who was really into Plato and even set out to revive Plato’s famous school, The Academy, with his own Florentine Academy. That word ‘Academy’, by the way, comes from the sacred grove in Athens where Plato happened to teach his followers – a grove named after the Greek hero Akademos -- and that’s where we get the words academy, academia, and academic, as well as the modern western conception of an institution of learning, like a university. All thanks to Plato.
But back to Matthias Corvinus and Marsilio Ficino, who put the Hungarian king onto Plato, and in particular the idea of the Philosopher King from Plato’s book The Republic, that is, the theory that a philosopher makes the ideal king. Makes sense, then, that Matthias was so committed to learning. And since Matthias was such an Italo-phile, he married Beatrice of Naples, the daughter of Ferdinand I, king of Naples from 1458 to 1494, and she encouraged Matthias in Italian renaissance values. And it is in part through her that the coach, both the word and the vehicle – yes we’re finally getting back to that now – made its way to the rest of Europe. Thanks to her marriage to Matthias, Beatrice’s nephew Ippolito d’Este became an archbishop in Hungary. Upon returning to Italy around 1500 he brought a Hungarian coach back with him, along with a Hungarian driver, and shortly thereafter it became popular throughout the rest of Europe. So thanks to the King of Hungary’s interest in academic learning, the coach makes its way to western Europe.
Its arrival there plays a part in a kind of transport revolution in the early modern period, what with better roads and more traffic than ever before. There was a new taste for fast transport by road for men, and not just for women or the aristocracy. And along the way there were various technological improvements to things such as suspension to provide a smoother ride. The later story of the coach, as well as other types of carriages, is one of continued technological development. For instance, in the 18th century, Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the famous Charles, and a physician who had to spend much time riding in coaches visiting his patients, invented an improved steering mechanism, now known as Ackermann steering, which would much later on be adapted for the steering mechanism of automobiles, and is still used today. Erasmus Darwin was a bit of a polymath with wide interests and pursuits, including his own proto-theory of evolution, cosmological speculations about the big bang, a design for a hydrogen-powered rocket, a mechanical bird, a speaking machine, a copying machine, and experiments with galvanism that inspired Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Further, like Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, Darwin was a big supporter of education for women, writing his own book on the subject, perhaps motivated by the illegitimate daughters, both schoolteachers, he had by one of his mistresses, a governess—make of that what you will! Interestingly, not wishing to patent his many inventions himself to avoid tarnishing his reputation as a physician by seeming to be greedy for money, he passed them on to others to develop. An Open-Source pioneer?
So how do we get from the development of transportation technology in the early modern period to the modern sense of coaching, like with those St Louis Rams I started with? Well, the answer is, it’s a metaphor that developed in the early 19th century at Oxford University, bringing us back to academic institutions, the modern equivalent of Plato’s Academy. Coach came to be used as a slang term for a tutor who metaphorically carries a student through an exam, in other words helping him get to where he wants to be. The first recorded instance in the Oxford English Dictionary of the noun ‘coach’ being used with this sense is in a poem written in 1848 by Arthur Clough, who had been an Oxford University student, and who in addition to writing poetry and being involved with educational matters, worked for a time as an unpaid secretarial assistant to the famous nurse Florence Nightingale. Clough’s narrative poem “The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich” features an Oxford University student as the main character. As a side note, Clough’s sister Anne was a suffragette who promoted higher education for women, and became the principle of Newnham College at Cambridge University, the other major academic institution in England along with Oxford. But anyway, the first recorded instance of the verb “to coach” in this sense is in the novel Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray, who is most famous for his novel Vanity Fair. The main character in the novel Pendennis is a student at a fictional college at the fictional university called Oxbridge, a portmanteau word made up by combining Oxford and Cambridge, which occurs for the first time in this novel. The name Oxbridge has since become a term to refer collectively to Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest and most celebrated universities in England. And speaking of Cambridge, it was University of Cambridge chemistry professor William Farish who invented the numerically graded written examination in 1792. So if you find university exams stressful, you have Farish to thank for it. And it’s because of these kinds of exams that we have the Oxbridge coaches, carrying students through them.
And so, it’s only a small step from academic coaches who help students through exams to athletic coaches who help athletes through competitions. In fact the first reference to an athletic coach is in the sport of rowing or crew, a sport famous for its rivalry between, you guessed it, Oxford and Cambridge universities, in their ever so creatively named annual competition The Boat Race. The Boat Race was started in 1829 by Charles Merivale and Charles Wordworth (nephew of poet William), friends and students at Cambridge and Oxford respectively. (Oh, and they both studied classics, which I suppose takes us back to Plato and ancient Greece.)
And so the word expanded to cover any athletic coach, including professional sports. But as we know, athletics and universities have continued to be connected. College football in the US is an obvious example – and did you know that the St Louis Rams, back when they were formed in Cleveland in 1936 before moving to Los Angeles and finally to St Louis, were named in honour of a university football team, the Fordham University Rams? The Fordham Rams can trace their own origin all the way back to 1882. Nowadays the academic and intellectual origins of the word ‘coach’ are mostly obscured by the sports-related meaning, which maybe isn’t surprising given the way sports seems to overshadow academics at many universities these days. I wonder what Plato would say about that?
I’ll be back soon with more etymological explorations and cultural connections, so please subscribe to this channel; you can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. If you have comments or questions, I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, or leave them in the comment section; you can also read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net