Thursday, July 21, 2011


This one came up a little while ago, but I hadn't had time to get to it. There was a short period where the women's roller derby came to town, the Kentucky derby was on, a friend at work introduced me to the shirt.woot derby, and I was reading a book with a character wearing a derby hat. In thinking of writing this post tonight, I realized that there was also a County Derby or a Derbyshire where quite possibly all these things have the ground of their beings, but I wasn't sure if it was in England or Ireland. Then, luckily for me, I happened to be reading an essay in Down These Green Streets, in which it turns out that Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas came from a short story originally set in Ireland, but his publisher's leery of a purely Irish tale, persuaded him to set it in Derbyshire.

So that's one thing sorted.

Now it seems that a derby must be a race of some sort, but is it a particular kind of race? And did people, men, wear particular kinds of hats to go to it? Frankly, I wouldn't know what a derby hat looked like if I sat on it. Well, particularly not after I'd sat on it. 

The Derby at Epsom, 1821 by Théodore Géricault
So the origins of this bifurcated path are simple enough. Well, sort of. They come from the Derby, an annual race on the Epsom Downs, which was inaugurated by the 12th Earl of Derby, Edward Smith-Stanley in 1780, and called more correctly the Derby Stakes. The Derby is probably the most prestigious horse race in England, so it's no surprise that the name was mimicked by the time the Kentucky Derby came into existence in 1875.

Simple enough, right?

Well, kind of. Because although it's easy enough to see the translation to any kind of race, there are other kinds of contests that are called derbies that have nothing to do with racing, but are more like bouts. So what's up with that? Well, I have a theory....

First, though, the place name Derby is somewhat disputed. The online etymology dictionary says that the name of the town comes from the Old English 'deorby',  which means 'deer village' or deer habitation. That '-by' at the end means 'homestead', or 'habitation' and this relates it a bit surprisingly to 'bylaw', which means the local law, or the law of the place. However, this site  has a somewhat different derivation. They note that Derby was once called Northworthige by the Saxons, and was changed by the invading Danes. But they think that Derby, which sits on the banks of the Derwent and has a neighboring town of Darley, and perhaps comes out of a Roman station called Derventio, may share with all of these the British/Celtic root of dwr, or water.  Personally, I'm thinking more water than deer here, but who am I to say?

What's interesting to me, in any case, is that -by. Because it ties back to this more current sense that a derby is not always a race, but sometimes a contest between two sides. As this comment, from Word makes clear, a derby, when it's not a big international race, is a small local contest:    

 In the UK a "derby" (small "d") means a "local derby": a match (football, rugby, cricket, etc.) played between neighbours. Not every big match is a derby. Manchester United vs Arsenal is a big match, but it is not a derby, because there is almost 200 miles between the clubs.  

Finally, a derby hat is really just an American version of the English bowler--(think Jeeves). It began being manufactured in the U.S. in 1850--no one seems to know how the name came about, but one story is that the manufacturer saw a lot of 'English gentlemen' wearing these bowlers at the English Derby. Anglophilia goes back a long way,  I guess, even though 1776 was  a lot closer then than it is now.



  1. Ever eaten at The Brown Derby?!

  2. Fascinating link between derby and bylaw!

    Brian O

  3. Kathleen, I'm almost certain that I did, since we went to downtown L.A. a lot when I was a very small child.

    Of course, we have all eaten there virtally, via the I Love Lucy episodes.

    Brian, yes, I have to say that these kinds of small unexpected connections are some of the reasons my interest in writing this blog continues undiminished.

  4. Where would we be without earls and barons? Certainly not wearing raglan sleeves and eating a sandwich while watching the derby.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  5. Now raglan might be worth investigating around these parts.

    I didn't mention that the race was thought up at a party between the earl and his friend Sir Charles.

    Sir Charles Bunbury, that is.

    A character named Bunbury in Derby history is just a little too good to seem true. But it is. In fact, Bunbury's horse won the first race.

  6. Bunbury. Has anything been named for him? If not, why not?

  7. If my name had been immortalized in an Oscar Wilde play, that would be enough for me. More than enough, actually.

  8. One thing I'm mildly curious about is how a soccer match between local rivals in the UK and maybe in Ireland as well came to be called a derby. I wonder if the reason is anything more specific that that the hoopla surrounding it is like that around a big race.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  9. My theory is that it is that local aspect of the -by in derby that lends itself to the local aspect of the contest. Just a hunch.

  10. I wonder. In any case, the -by is a product of the Nordic invasions, so intracity matches would not have been called derbies before 1066.

  11. Merriam-Webster's Web site is unsatisfactory:


    noun \ˈdər-bē, especially British ˈdär-\
    plural derbies
    Definition of DERBY
    : any of several horse races held annually and usually restricted to three-year-olds
    : a race or contest open to all comers or to a specified category of contestants
    : a man's stiff felt hat with dome-shaped crown and narrow brim
    See derby defined for English-language learners »
    See derby defined for kids »

    Examples of DERBY

    a derby between Manchester United and Manchester City

    Its definitions do not include a match between local rivals, but its usage example does. That's shoddy work on Merriam-Webster's part.

  12. Well, in any case, no race or contest would have been called a derby before 1780.

  13. Seana

    Ah but how do you pronounce it?

    In the UK its Darby. The US its Derby.

    I remember a Benjamin Disraeli novel and one of the big events in the book was betting at the Epsom Derby. It was a historic race back then, which is some provenance.

    Of course the Derby winner I most remember was the beautiful stallion Shergar, who won by a record ten lengths and then was kidnapped and later machine gunned by the IRA.

  14. Yes, though to my inner ear it is always derby, I did remember the Brit's perverse pronunciation of their own language.

    Never read that Disraeli novel. I know he wrote one or two--was it worth it?

    Killing horses is pretty low, but then, no lower than killing people.

  15. Might I add that its also a type of gentlemens footwear called a Derby Boot. Similar to a Chelsea Boot but quite different im told.

  16. Thanks for that, Anonymous. I hadn't heard of either the derby boot or the chelsea boot, though of course both looked quite familiar when I googled them.

    Comfortable, too.

  17. Seana

    I dont remember which one I read, but I think it was pretty good...possibly it was Sybil. You know that you've more or less covered Victorian fiction when you're starting to read Disraeli's novels or obscure Wilkie Collins books.

  18. Either that or your reading is extremely random, as would be the case with me.

  19. Pretty cool to see that DJ Taylor's Derby Day is on the Booker longlist.

    Of course it's a long shot.