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Sunday, 4 August 2013

The curious coach

Where would American fiction of a certain kind be, without stage coaches to be robbed?  And where would that genre's blood brother in Australia be, with the mail (coach) to be bailed up?

The next cab off my writing rank when I get home, later this week, will be bushrangers, though not the usual ones, though even they used to bail up coaches, to rob passengers and/or to pillage the mail and/or to win gold the easy way.  So coaches have been on my mind as I blatted around Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Switzerland and Italy. The one above, oddly enough, was in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and it was added later.

S. T. Gill, The Arrival of the Geelong Mail in Ballarat.
The word 'coach', in one form or another, is common in many European languages as the name for a four-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle with seats inside and out.

In French, Spanish and Portuguese, the word is coche, while it is cocchio in Italian, and kutsche in German.

This sort of pattern of consistency usually indicates a recent origin, and indeed this is the case with coach, which was first used in English, according to the OED, in 1556. All of the words come from the Magyar (Hungarian) word kocsi, meaning 'of Kocs', this being pronounced 'kohtch', near enough.

This Kocs was a town, between Buda and Raab, where these vehicles were made. The Shorter OED quotes without attribution the Latin tag "ungaricum currum [quem] kotczi vulgo vocant" — the Hungarian carriage [which] the common people call kotczi.

The word was quickly pressed into service, and when Ophelia is going mad after Hamlet kills Polonius, she says "Come, my coach! Good night, ladies. Good night, sweet ladies. Good night, good night." before wandering out, leaving those behind to conclude that she really is going bananas (or possibly that Shakespeare felt the scene needed padding?). All the same, the limitations of a coach are readily apparent to us today, when we read Portia's words in:
But come, I'll tell thee all my whole device
When I am in my coach, which stays for us
At the park gate; and therefore haste away,
For we must measure twenty miles to-day.
But if the vehicle itself has held that name for that length of time, there are more meanings that have tagged onto the word since it was first used. A coach can be a cabin on a ship, usually somewhere near the stern, for the use of the captain.

This coach was also called a 'couch', which gives us a hint of its origins, since the captain often needed to be awakened regularly in bad weather, and could snatch some sleep in his wet-weather gear. This became grander as ships grew larger, and at one stage, 'to dine in the coach' was like eating at the captain's table.

By 1866, the word was being used for a sleeping carriage on a railway train, though the logical French insist on calling it a wagon lit, a 'bed wagon'. In more modern times, the fancier long-distance passenger vehicles otherwise called a bus or an omnibus may also be referred to as a coach.

The coach gave its name to the coach box, the seat where the driver sat, to the coach horn, blown to signal the next staging point as the coach approached, the coach whip which needed to be long and thin to reach the lead horses, and so came by transfer to mean other long thin items such as the pendant flown at a ship's masthead under certain circumstances.

A fearful kind of coach.
For the past century and a half, a coach has also been a person who acts as a private tutor for students. And since 1885, it has also been a person who trained athletes of one sort or another.

I started thinking about this overlap, knowing the Magyar origins of the word, as I watched a Hungarian coach with his charge in a gymnastic event on the television, and I wondered what he would make of it, if he knew the origins of the term, but then I decided there was probably no relationship at all. I set it aside until I saw a royal  coach in Palermo the other day.

A bit of checking suggests that I was right the first time. The verb 'to coach' meant originally to travel in a coach, and it seems that when tutors had just a few students, they worked together, with the tutor carrying them to the passing point, as it were, acting as a form of transport. Perhaps there was an element of punning here, since the word 'curriculum' comes from Latin, and means 'a small currum' in that language, though not necessarily an ungaricum currum.

Then again, perhaps the point in your career where you need coaching is just a stage you pass through.

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