Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Sir Thomas More, wearing the fashionable livery collar, as painted by Holbein*
After my last post on lackeys, who turn out to have originally  been liveried, or uniformed servants, I of course started wondering whether the word 'deliver' has any connection to this livery word. It seems at this close juncture that it must, but when I hear words like 'deliverance', I think of more spiritual concepts, and that there must be another Latin root that denotes salvation of some kind.

Well...which is it?


According to my usual resource, the Online Etymology Dictionary, livery makes its original appearance in English in about 1300. At that time, it meant a "household allowance of any kind (food, provisions, clothing) to retainers or servants". It made it's way over by the typical Anglo-French means, coming from livere, out of the Old French livrée, which was an allowance, ration or pay, but originally seems to have meant clothes "delivered by a master to his retinue". Over time, the meaning contracted to simply mean servants' rations, and, interestingly, "provender for horses". Perhaps not so much distinction was made between servants and horses as there might be now...

Livery shrank still further till it only meant "distinctive clothing given to servants", and the horse part died out--except for in the term "livery yard" or "livery stable". Both of these places provide provender for horses, but have slightly different functions. In England, a livery yard or livery stable is a place where you board your horse. But in America a livery stable was actually a place where you hired horses and wagons and teams.

According to Wikipedia, the livery stable "was a necessary institution of every American town, but it has been generally ignored by historians." If that's so, I wonder why. They go on to tell us that not only were livery stables the source of many resources that arrived in town, like hay, grain and coal, but were also a lively, somewhat immoral or at least amoral venue, attracting such things as cockfighting and gambling--not to mention vermin. Like other kinds of questionable districts, there were a lot of efforts to control them. The advent of the automobile age effectively put an end to livery stables--though probably not the kinds of activities they drew into their spheres.

But cars didn't put an end to livery. In fact, automobiles are some of the many vehicles that, following the fashion of decorated carriages, sport livery these days. Planes, trains and automobiles, in fact. Well, jets.

Horizon Air's custom livery promoting four Oregon public colleges.

In fact, a lot of things that we think of more as logo design and branding are, in fact, livery.

As for the connection between livery and delivery, well, I'm still not sure I've gotten to the bottom of that. The root is the Latin liberare, which means "to free", and they both have something to do with handing something over. Like livery, delivery has become pretty diffuse in its meanings. As the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, for example, sometimes deliver means to hand over or yield, which puts it in opposition to its root.

Words are funny that way. 

*I should say that More's livery collar is actually the chain. It was a symbol of allegiance, though it's actually the emblem hanging from it that is the livery.


  1. Livrée survives in French to this day as a past participle of livrer. to deliver. I wonder if this has any connection with livre, meaning pound.

    1. Peter, I think you're going to have to take that up with our sister site, aveux d'ignorance.

      Just kidding everyone! There is no sister site. The French confess a lot of things, but ignorance is rare.

      Well, there is a sister site, but it's all about Japanese.

  2. Limousines have livery license plates...

    1. Kathleen, yes, a liveried vehicle is a legal term for a hired vehicle that is driven by someone else, like a limo or a taxicab, but not for a car you rent and drive yourself. Apparently, they can only carry up to seven people which excludes buses. The term seems to come out of the old livery stable, where hackney cabs and the like were hired.

  3. And would it be possible to play with "liver" and say e.g. that you don't like duck foie gras because it has a very livery taste compared to goose? Or would that be an abomination in English?

  4. Yes, people do say 'livery' in the sense you mean, Hugo, and I have to say that that sense floated across my mind a few times as I wrote this.

    What I was really hoping was that delivery, as in the sense of special delivery or postal delivery would turn out to meant handed over by someone in livery, like a postman. But alas, no.

  5. This is a very good post.
    Thank you for the share.

  6. Thanks for the initial research on this. What brought me here was reading a news story that referred to "livery cab." Assuming that was a formal noun for a delivery truck (maybe it is not)...I pondered "I wonder why they don't just refer to it as a 'delivery truck' then...is there even a difference between the two words?"

    But yeah, I do agree...words (especially in US English) are funny things.

  7. Anonymous, and Chicago Limo Service, thanks for the comments here. It's been awhile since I wrote this up so I had to go back and figure out what the heck I found out. Good refresher.

  8. Oh, and I hope you discovered that a livery cab is not a delivery van but an alternate car hire service to the (in the U.S.) more typical yellow taxi. Taxis are on meters, livery cabs are pre rented at a fixed price. Good short article here.