Fun Etymology Tuesday – Hearse

Hello, splendid followers!
Let me ask you a question: how do you go from a wolf to a car model specifically designed to transport coffins?
No clue? Well, you’re in luck, because today’s Fun Etymology is about one of the English words with the most byzantine history of semantic shifts: “hearse”.

The original roots of the word are thought to be found in the Oscan word “hirpus”, meaning “wolf”. Oscan was a sister language to Latin, spoken during the time of the Roman Empire. This word would have gone extinct if some Oscan farmer hadn’t noticed how the tool he used to break up soil on his farm kinda looked like the fangs of a wolf, and decided to call it so. This word was quickly borrowed into Latin as “hirpex” and went on to describe this agricultural implement (what in modern English is called a harrow) for centuries. Then, at some point during the Middle Ages, someone noticed how certain kinds of chandelier used in churches kinda looked similar to these harrows, so they figured why not extend the meaning of this word to indicate those as well?
By this time, the word looked like “hercia”, and that’s how it was borrowed into Old English. Only guess what that particular kind of chandelier was used for in England? That’s right, it was hung above coffins during funerals! So someone thought: “What’s the harm in having this word mean “coffin” as well? It’s not like you talk about chandeliers every day, is it?”
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, and soon the word was further extend to indicate the carriage on which the coffin was transported to the church prior to the funeral, then those carriages got replaced by cars, and here we are!

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