What in the Word?! Raking over the roots of rehearse
As we saw in our last post in the series on bulldozer, some astonishing metaphors can underlie the names of our tools. But the process can work in both directions as tools themselves can supply the metaphor. Such is the case for rehearse.
Today, we mainly use the word rehearse for ‘practicing a play, piece of music, or some other work before a later public performance’. We go over our lines, we run through our parts; these senses are suggested by rehearse’s prefix re-, meaning ‘again’.
But what is the -hearse? What about it conveys ‘practice’? A hearse, for most us, only conveys a coffin at a funeral. Death, alas, catches all – even rehearse, as we’ll see – and to understand why we will have to exhume some of the past lives of the word.
Down to earth
The immediate source of rehearse is the Anglo-Norman rehercer or reherser – Anglo-Norman being the variety of Old French used in England. This verb variously denoted ‘repeating’ or ‘reciting’, and when English borrowed it as reherce or reherse around 1300, it meant ‘to give an account or description of something at length’, i.e. ‘report’ or ‘relate’, if we want to make some sense of that re- prefix.
Metaphor was already at work in the French rehercer, though. The verb literally means ‘to harrow again’. Harrow: unless you’re a pre-industrial farmer, this word calls up ‘distress’, as in a harrowing experience. But this sense is also figurative, for a harrow was originally a kind of heavy rake dragged over the earth – manhandling it, really – ahead of planting. (Google ‘ancient harrow’; it’s an intense tool!) And a herse, in French, was the name for this agricultural implement, herser the verb for using it. For a time, English used herse to refer to a harrow as well.
To rehearse, then, in the ancient French imagination, was to go over some information like a farmer raking a patch of soil.
The French herse goes further back to the Latin hirpex, a ‘large rake’, a word in which some etymologists suspect yet more metaphor is at play. They propose that hirpex is rooted in the Oscan hirpus, a term for ‘wolf’ in the Umbrian region where the extinct Italian language was once spoken. The sharp tines of the hirpex, apparently, were likened to the mean teeth of wolves.
On the stage
If you’re rehearsing the role of the big bad wolf in some production of Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs, you – in some absurdly remote etymological way – are well cast for the part.
We can see how rehearse easily progresses to theatre in English. To rehearse something, as previously noted of its meaning in the early 1300s, was to give a report of it: you’re sharing some experience you witnessed or learned, as if going through it again. Over the 14th century, rehearse expanded to ‘repeat something said, heard, written’ and so forth, which became especially associated with the recitation of memorized poetry or prayers by the late 1300s. The memorization and recitation of lines is key to dramatic performance, and so we see rehearse jump to the stage by the late 16th century.
The earliest evidence the Oxford English Dictionary finds for the usual modern meaning of rehearse with reference to practicing a play hails from the 1579-80 Extracts from the Accounts of the Revels at the Courts in the Reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James I (ed. Peter Cunningham, 1842). One item enters fees incurred by Edmund Tilney, Master of the Office of the Revels, or royal festivals, remembered for his censorship even as his tenure saw drama flourish, including Shakespeare’s. In the ledger, we find rehersinge of dyvrs plaies (‘rehearsing of diverse plays’):
For his Chardges w[ith] the Chardges of the players, the Carriage and recariage of their stuffe, for examyngynge and Rehersinge of dyvrs plaies and Choices makinge of x of them to be shown before her Ma[jestie] at Christmas, twelfetide, Canldemas, and Shrovetyde, and their sondry rehersalls aftertwarde till to be presented before her Ma[jestie].
The OED gives Shakespeare, whose work was subject to Tilney’s review, the next two citations for the ‘practicing’ rehearse. Fittingly enough, they come in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring the Bard’s well-rehearsed trope of the play-within-the-play. Shakespeare uses rehearse five times in the comedy, the most of any work out of the nearly 20 instances of forms of the words in his oeuvre. Directing the ragtag mechanicals in their shambolic – despite rehearsal – performance of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe, Peter Quince instructs:
…Come, sit down,
every mother’s son, and rehearse your parts.
Pyramus, you begin: when you have spoken your
speech, enter into that brake: and so every one
according to his cue.
It is interesting to consider if Shakespeare is ribbing rehearse as a theatrical buzzword of the day, given Quince’s comical amateurism and proclivity for malapropisms.
Rehearse is still in flux for Shakespeare, however, as later in the play Titania says:
… rehearse your song by rote
To each word a warbling note:
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.
Here, he uses rehearse in its older sense of recitation, illustrating that rehearse was still evolving in Shakespeare’s England.
To the grave
And now we have that final march of hearse: the funeral march. The coffin-bearing hearse also comes, incredibly enough, from that same French herse behind rehearse, the ‘harrow’. Our familiar friend, metaphor, is busy once again in the word, as the shape and framework of the harrow was likened to an old type of candleholder.
In English, the funereal hearse first referred to an elaborate candelabrum used at certain Christian holy days or displayed on top of the coffins of important individuals at church. These structures developed different functions over time, such as holding up the pall on a coffin. By the mid-17th century, it took on its current sense of a vehicle for transporting the coffin – which it goes into the burial plot, the dug-up earth re-piled and perhaps leveled again with a herse.
Ashes to ashes, herse to hearse.