Posts Tagged ‘horses’

Another Mystery for Sherlock Homophone

Posted in English Stew, General on October 25th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

How can a derby be both a hat and a horserace? In fact, it could have been a soft drink, too; so be grateful for minor confusion instead of complete chaos.

The original Derby is a middling city in the English Midlands. The Romans called it “Derventio” in reference to the area’s oak trees, which the bored legionaires probably counted for lack of any other entertainment. (Londinium wasn’t exactly Rome either, but at least it had baths and burlesque theaters.) And 15 centuries later, the social life of Derby has not improved. The city’s idea of sophistication is pronouncing its name as Darby.

Nonetheless, Derby and its adjacent Derbyshire had sufficient resources to support and indulge a family of aristocrats: the Stanleys. They have been the neighborhood Earls since 1485, when Lord William Stanley stayed at the sidelines of Bosworth Field until he decided who to betray: Richard III or Henry Tudor. Since Stanley was married to Tudor’s mother, perhaps he really didn’t have a choice; but Richard still seemed surprised when the Stanley forces attacked him. The grateful Henry promoted his stepfather to an earldom.

Despite the initial treachery that elevated the family fortune, the Stanleys proved to be a loyal lot. None of them were killed by Henry VIII, Mary or Elizabeth—an actuarial miracle probably unmatched in any other family of English nobility. One Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby, was killed by Cromwell; but that reflects only the Earl’s ineptitude, not his loyalty. The 8th Earl was so steadfast that he did not publicly complain when his wife’s second son looked like Charles II; however, the young man was written out of the Stanley will.

The 12th Earl is the hero of our story. If you believe the Gainsborough portrait of Edward Stanley (1752-1834), the Earl was an attractive and refined figure. You certainly would not recognize him as the short, fat slovenly man in the caricatures of London’s social gazettes. The Earl’s nickname was “Talley-Ho” so you get some inkling of the man’s cerebral nature. He did like the theater, if only for the actresses, but his chief enthusiasm obviously was for horses–breeding and racing them. To showcase his stable of thoroughbreds, he sponsored races. The Earl did not think it immodest to name one of the races the Derby Stakes. Indeed, the Earl would have been gratified to know that Derby is now synonymous with racing, although soapbox and demolition derbys might not be that flattering.

However, the Earl would be bewildered by the hat named for him. He never wore one; he never saw one. He died fifteen years before the hat was introduced. In 1849 the Bowler Brothers, custom hatters in London, were commissioned by the Earl of Leicester to create practical headgear for his gamekeepers. (Top hats tend to fall off when riding, and they look silly on anyone but aristocrats). The Bowlers produced the hat that sometimes bears their name; for some reason, no one wanted to call it a leicester. When that particular hat was introduced to the United States, however it was marketed as high fashion rather than practical headgear. Apparently, the name Bowler just did not sound chic, and Leicester could be a challenge to pronounce. (We literal Amercans would say Lei-cester instead of Lester.) So some marketing maven renamed the hat for the presumably dashing Earl of Derby, and that is how we Americans still identify the Bowlers’ claim to fame.

The real Derbys have demonstrated a remarkable stoicism or stupefaction over the misappropriation of their title. Certainly one of the Earls had to notice the dubiously-named hats . The 16th Earl spent 5 years on this side of the Atlantic, as Governor General of Canada. An avid sportsman (a genetic indisposition), he did not care to designate any dog sled races as Derbys. However, he was very impressed with another Canadian pastime: men flaying each other on ice. In fact, he even created a championship trophy for the brawls. Of course, he had to name it for himself; and if Derby had become grossly overused, his actual surname could suffice. (He was Lord Stanley to his friends.)

But how could the hat be confused with a soft drink? Remember that the Leicester family commissioned the Bowlers’ masterpiece. The surname of the Earls was Coke. In fact, it still is; the Atlanta conglomerate apparently has not sued them into extinction. Yet.