Thursday, 19 June 2014

Constable - A Stable Profession

A Victorian police constable chatting to a maid in London
A stallion of a Victorian constable chatting to a maid
(photograph courtesy of Leonard Bentley)


Noun. Middle English.
[Old French cunestable, cone- (modern connétable), representing late Latin comes stabuli literally 'count (head officer) of the stable'.]

1 Historical. The principal officer of the household, administration, or army of a monarch or nobleman;
specifically one of the chief officers of the French, English, or Scottish royal household. ME

2 The governor or warden of a royal fortress or castle. ME

3 A military officer. Long rare. ME

4(a) An officer of the peace. ME

4(b) A police officer of the lowest rank. Also more fully police constable. M19

Should you ever be found horsing about in one of Britain's fair cities, do expect a stern word in your ear from a constable of the law. However, why not diffuse this moment of awkwardness by asking your conscientious constable if he knows his rank's chevaline etymology? He will no doubt be delighted to learn that constable comes from the Latin comes stabuli, which was an officer in charge of a lord's stables during the Byzantine era; it was transferred to Western Europe first as a high military rank, and later adopted as the (generally lowest) rank for police officers. Of course, as with the dropping of any etym-bomb, timing is everything, and my experience is that the police have little time for lively linguistic debate during the actual exercising of their duties (ie. reading you your rights). You wouldn't want to stirrup any trouble with the long face of the law now, would you? Ho ho ho [baton smack].

Are you a constable?

Were you aware of its horsey origins?

Do answer Yay or Neigh in the horsebox below.


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