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The hedging henchman and his hidden horse

This is the second and last part of the henchman tale, of which the first part appeared a week ago (August 25, 2021). The difficulties confronting an etymologist are two: 1) We don’t know exactly what the word henchman meant when it first surfaced in Middle English, and 2) the obscure Medieval Latin gloss used to elucidate the English word (gerolocista; recorded in 1440) looks nearly as enigmatic as the English noun it was supposed to explain. 

Latin gero means “to carry,” and gerulus is “bearer, carrier.” If –ista is a suffix, the letter c in the middle (gerolocista) remains unexplained. The parallel form gerolosista makes the situation even less clear. Though gerolocista was supposed to be a Latin noun, it does not follow that we are dealing with a genuine Latin coinage. Medieval Latin was full of Germanic words, Latinized, to lend them an air of antiquity. One of the discussants suggested that ger– is Engl. “gear; furniture; trappings” and –locista looked after things to be carried. The impetuous and irascible Frank Chance, whose virtues I extoled in the previous post, called this interpretation a wild guess. His opponent was hurt, and Chance apologized, though rather lamely. 

It does not seem that the mystery of gerolocista ~ gerolosista has been solved to everybody’s satisfaction, but, most probably, the word is “true Latin,” so that the person meant did have to carry something. The real question is the etymology of henchman and the role of the word hengst in it. Last week, I wrote that hengst had died out in English about a century and a half (if not earlier!) before the appearance of henchman and that for dealing with it we must examine the Scandinavian languages, in which a cognate of hengst (hestr ~ hest ~ häst) is a living word. In one of the comments on the previous post, it was quite correctly noted that Modern German also has Hengst “stallion” and that there is no need to look north. Indeed, heng(e)st is a Common Germanic noun (though not attested in biblical Gothic). Its origin poses some problems, but they need not concern us here. 

These are the Heinzelmännchen of German folklore. The source of henchmen? (Image: Palmer Cox’s “The Brownies” reading a book, from “The Palmer Cox Brownie Primer” via Wikimedia Commons)

Those who will take the trouble to look up henchman in modern dictionaries will at best read that despite some difficulties of interpretation this word originally meant “horseman.” More often no difficulties are mentioned. Frank Chance spent almost ten years trying to disprove the horseman idea. The consensus modern lexicographers have reached shows that he failed in his endeavor, but that does not mean that he was wrong. One thing seems to be clear. Unless henchman had existed centuries before it was recorded as hengest-, henxst-, henx-, hensman (a most unlikely idea!), around 1440, no one would have thought of coining those forms with reference to Old Engl. heng(e)st, a long-forgotten word, just as today it would not have occurred to the speakers of Modern English to call a horseman hengstman. Moreover, whatever gerolocista means, the word had nothing to do with “stallion, mare, foal, stable” or anything along such lines. 

All this was of course quite clear to the great etymologist Walter W. Skeat and James A. H. Murray, the first editor of The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Skeat conceded that henchman could not be an English coinage and suggested that it had been borrowed “from the continent.” Later, he pointed to Dutch as the lending language. In the latest edition of his Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, he wrote (I expanded his abbreviations): “Henchman: …for hengest-man, i.e., groom; from Middle Engl. hengest, Anglo-Saxon [= Old Engl.] hengest, a horse. Cf. Dutch and German hengst, Danish hingst, a horse, Icelandic hestr, a horse.” His entry is a smokescreen. In this case, no one is interested in the history of the word hengest: we want to know how hengestman originated. Murray, as mentioned in the previous post, followed the polemic closely, refrained from active interfering, but in the end shared the main part of Skeat’s opinion. However, the formulation in the first edition of the OED is much more honest than what we find in Skeat’s concise dictionary. I am quoting a passage from The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1966 (and again expanding the abbreviations): “The early history and original meaning are obscure, Old Engl. hengest being extinct soon after 1200 (except as an element in proper names containing the name of the reputed founder of Kent), and there being no parallel compounds in the Continental languages.” Note: no parallel forms! 

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1847 (Image: Daguerreotype by Hermann Blow via Wikimedia Commons)

This is what Chance kept repeating for years: of course, the word hengst has cognates, but hengstman “horse-man” does not, and there was nothing to borrow from German or Dutch. In the long controversy, the participants kept pointing out that, according to the early texts, henchmen were often associated with horses. Here I think Chance was also right. In the Middle Ages, every retainer and every servant could be represented as dealing with horses or riding on horseback. Yet, when it comes to etymology, knight, page, and groom contain no equestrian allusions. A rather astounding entry occurs in Ernest Weekley’s An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Walter Scott, he wrote, “found hanchman [sic] in Burt’s Letters from North Scotland (1730), explained as one who is always at his master’s haunch [see the previous post!], which is either a blunder or an invention. There may thus be no real connection with the Middle English word.” 

Frank Chance seems to have been right: the traditional etymology of henchman should be abandoned. From a historical point of view, the word has nothing to do with horses (the more so as hengst is not even a synonym for horse and that the main Dutch word for “horse” was at that time paard, a cognate of German Pferd) and does not seem to have an ascertainable English source. Quite naturally, he tried to find a better explanation and a more credible source.  He mentioned Blount (see again the previous post) but did not refer to his enigmatic remark that the word was German. Yet he came to the same conclusion. In his opinion, hengest-, henxst-, etc. are reflexes of a proper name. He referred to such German family names as Hansmann, Henschmann, Hentzelmann, Heintzelmann, and the like. Later, he paid special attention to Heinz “household spirit” and mentioned the diminutive sprite Hängstemänneken, according to some authorities, connected with Heinzelmann (Heinzelmännchen) and ultimately with Hendrick ~ Heinrich. 

A military marshal. A long way from a mare-servant! (Image: Uniform of a Russian General-fieldmarshal (1793) via Wikimedia Commons)

If Chance was right, henchman began his career as a friendly attendant (a jack of all trades?). Later his status was elevated. This is a common process: marshal was once marha-skalk “mare servant” (seneschal has the same second component as marshal; sene– goes back to senior), and nearly all medieval words referring to the retainer’s high rank have humble origins (bed-servant, shoe-servant, and the like). To reinforce Chance’s idea, I may add that in the first tale of the Grimms’ collection, the prince’s lifelong loyal servant is known as der treue Heinrich, the faithful Heinrich. Apparently, the name Heinrich acquired a natural connection with the idea of service. Nazis called Himmler der treue Heinrich. One may wish Hitler had fewer such loyal retainers. 

As pointed out more than once in this blog, etymologies can seldom be “proved.” Yet Chance’s idea looks promising. The reference to heng(e)st in the history of henchman is almost certainly wrong. However, even if Chance guessed well, we still don’t know how and why the English word made its way to England from Germany. Perhaps we are dealing with an element of the North Sea medieval lingua franca 

Feature image: Running Horse via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Ian Ritchie

    “In the Middle Ages, every retainer and every servant could be represented as dealing with horses or riding on horseback. Yet, when it comes to etymology, knight, page, and groom contain no equestrian allusions.”

    What about “equerry”?

  2. Fred de Vries

    Maybe ‘henchman’ can bet traced back to the Finnish ‘hangas’, which means ‘a type of branched or forked tool’ and ‘fence’. Similarly, in Dutch ‘omheining’ is also a ‘fence’.

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