When asked for a word that comes from Hungarian, a Spanish or English speaker might not be able to think of any, or might eventually hit on goulash/gulach, which is ‘a type of meat stew.’ Much more common and unexpected, though, is coche/coach, from Hungarian kocsi. The word was based on Kocs, the town in northwestern Hungary where a certain type of large carriage drawn by horses was manufactured as far back as the 1400s. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica had this to say about the use of coach in English: “As a general term it is used (as in ‘coach-building’) for all carriages, and also in combination with qualifying attributes for particular forms (stage-coach, mail-coach, mourning-coach, hackney-coach, &c.); but the typical coach involves four wheels, springs and a roof. The stage-coach, with seats outside and in, was a public conveyance which was known in England from the 16th century, and before railways the stage-coaches had regular routes (stages) all over the country; through their carrying the mails (from 1784) the term ‘mail-coach’ arose. Similar vehicles were used in America and on the European continent.”
As the age of the horse gave way to that of the railroad, English began to apply coach to ‘a first-class passenger car’ and then more generally to ‘any type of passenger railroad car.’ Spanish similarly uses coche for ‘the car of a train or subway.’ Spanish has also extended the use of coche to the automobile, so that some Spanish-speaking countries use coche where others use carro, with both meaning ‘a car, an automobile.’
English beats Spanish when it comes to carrying the meaning of the word the greatest distance from what it originally designated. Because a coach shelters passengers and conveys them to a place far from where they started, English began using coach as a metaphor for ‘a person who trains—note the vehicular reference—someone else to be better at an activity.’ That sense came about in the 1830s at Oxford University, where coach applied originally to ‘an academic tutor.’ In the United States, athletics has usurped the word: a cynic can point to that theft as just one of the many that athletics continues to commit against academics in our schools.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman