We now pause in three tiny towns, each hidden away in Central Europe, and each having made an indelible contribution to the English language. In the case of at least two of the next few stops on our journey, the words in question are in constant use.
Kocs (pronounced kotch) is a village in northwest Hungary, some forty miles from Budapest, home to only a little over two thousand people. From this small village, however, comes a word that can be used to mean any one of a number of modes of transport; a trainer or instructor; or, as a verb, ‘to educate’ or ‘to instruct’.
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Coach: Word History Connections
Despite its small size, in the late Middle Ages Kocs became known across Hungary for the quality of its wheelwrights’ craftsmanship. In the fifteenth century, local wheel-makers in Kocs began manufacturing expertly made carts and horse-drawn wagons that were sturdily built but still relatively lightweight and utilised an innovative steel-sprung suspension system in their design. This made the kocsi szeker, or ‘Kocs wagon’, a much faster and smoother ride than most comparable vehicles – and, ultimately, the personal cart of choice for Ferdinand I, King of Hungary.
With the royal seal of approval, the Kocs wagon and its innovative sprung suspension soon became popular both within Hungary and far beyond its borders. By the sixteenth century, practically all the major countries and languages of Europe had absorbed the Hungarian kocsi into their vocabularies to refer to this new kind of cart. In Polish, it was the kocz. In German, it was the kutsche. The Italians had the cocchio, the Dutch the koets. Spain, Portugal and France all had their own local versions of the coche. The English finally picked up their word for it from their French neighbours in the mid 1500s, and we’ve had coaches ever since. But this particular story doesn’t end there.
Once it had established itself in the language, English speakers began to use the word coach as a catch-all term for any similar vehicle or conveyance capable of transporting passengers quickly and in comfort. So, by the early seventeenth century, the captain’s apartment on board ship had become known as the coach. By the early 1800s, the first railway carriages were known as coaches. The first single-decker buses called coaches arrived in the 1920s. And the first aircraft added their coach class in the late 1940s.
But when a word endures like this in a language, it often doesn’t take long for it to begin to be used more figuratively – and in the case of coach, things began to change in the mid nineteenth century.
Originating in the sharp-witted slang of students at Oxford University, in the 1840s coach first began to be used as a jocular name for a private tutor or mentor, whose services are taken on in addition to the university’s tuition. In that sense, the word referred to someone who will help, like a vehicle, to ‘carry’ students through their final exams. This meaning quickly caught on: a verb (originally meaning ‘to study for examination’, then simply ‘to tutor’) emerged in the mid 1840s, and by the 1880s coach had become a widely employed synonym for ‘teacher’ or ‘instructor’, used in all manner of fields or pursuits. Every single one of these meanings we owe to a remote village on the Hungarian border.
Dickens, for instance, coined the term slow coach in The Pickwick Papers (1837):
And what does this allusion to the slow coach mean? For aught I know, It may be a reference to Pickwick himself, who has most unquestionably been a criminally slow coach during the whole of this transaction.