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|
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 Reference.com 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.