In Words

Tomorrow is Derby Day. Why is it called Derby Day? Because it’s the day they run the Derby. And why is the race called the Derby? Because it was conceived at a party hosted by Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby. Why was he called the 12th… OK, that’s enough of that.

So far, so straightforward.

But is this sporting connection to Derby the reason why we use the term ‘derby’ in reference to other sporting contests? The answer is simple:


Some words defeat the etymologists and ‘derby’ is one of them. Consider this. As England emerged from the Dark Ages, a popular form of entertainment was marching mob-handed into the neighbouring village on Shrove Tuesday and starting a fight. These local brawls were hugely entertaining and drew large crowds but the casualty count started to get out of hand, so someone decide to calm things down by throwing an inflated pig’s bladder into the fray (a trick they might want to consider in Croydon of a Saturday night).

So evolved the origins of both football and rugby. For centuries, these anarchic ball games took place in and among villages throughout England on Shrove Tuesday, until someone invented the pancake and the whole thing fizzled out. With one notable exception: the Royal Shrovetide Football Match that still takes place each year in Ashbourne, Derbyshire (you see where this is going?).

The people of Ashbourne claim that it’s this link to Derbyshire that gives us the word ‘derby’, specifically used for a local sporting contest. And if you’ve ever seen the people of Ashbourne in action, you wouldn’t argue. You wouldn’t ask, for instance, why we don’t call it a ‘local Ashbourne’.

You might, however, ask why, if ‘derby’ implies local, it is generally used with the word ‘local’ in front of it. ‘The local derby between United and City.’ At which point, whoever has the misfortune of sitting next to you will probably turn away and just watch the game. Or the race. Or whatever.

Some words are best just enjoyed – and derby is one of them. Let’s face it, as long as Moonlight Magic romps home in first, who cares about etymology?

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