Driving home from choir this evening, my daughter and I observed a football practice underway. In light of the weather conditions (cold and drizzly), I remarked that I didn't envy those young players having to "rehearse" in the rain. After giggling about my choice of a musical word for a non-musical activity (and observing that one can both rehearse and practice a song but that one can only practice football), we began to muse on the word "rehearse." My daughter first considered the parts of the word, noting that it appears to be a combination of the prefix "re-" and the root "hearse," but indicating that she was not familiar with the word "hearse." So I defined it for her as a vehicle that carries the coffin in a funeral procession, but then went on to say that I found it hard to imagine a connection between "hearse" and "rehearse" and suspected "rehearse" was more likely traced to the verb "hear," since when we rehearse something there is an element of "re-hearing" it.
So much for my amateur attempt at linguistic analysis. When we arrived home we went for the dictionary and found that according to my Concise Oxford English Dictionary (which I absolutely love for the etymology and which my aging eyes love for the clean and legible format), "rehearse" likely comes from the Old French "rehercier" and is a combination of the prefix "re-", meaning "again" (at least we got that much right) and the root "hercer," meaning "to harrow." The definition of "harrow" is "an implement consisting of a heavy frame set with teeth or tines which is dragged over ploughed land to break up or spread the soil."
Huh? And from this we get both "hearse" and "rehearse"?
My Concise OED explains it far better than I can:
"The modern meaning of the word hearse is far removed from that of its ancient roots. It derives ultimately from a word in an extinct language of southern Italy, signifying a wolf's teeth. This word was absorbed into Latin as hirpex, denoting, with reference to the implement's teeth, a large rake. This entered Old French in the form herce, meaning 'harrow'. In English a hearse was originally a triangular frame similar in shape to an ancient harrow, designed to hold candles. From this it became an elaborate framework or canopy constructed over the coffin of an important person prior to their [sic] funeral. By the middle of the 17th century the word referred to a carriage built to carry a coffin, from which evolved the modern hearse, or funeral vehicle."
Okay, so that explains where we get "hearse." But what about "rehearse"? How does one get from a farming implement to a verb that means "to practice"?
Seems like an awfully big leap. But if you think about it, perhaps it's not such a leap after all. When one rehearses, what does he or she do but dig deeper into the thing being rehearsed--whether a musical work or a speech or a play--plowing it as one plows the earth to loosen the soil and make it more fertile than it otherwise would be. As I am continually trying to explain to my piano students, effective practicing (or rehearsing) is not merely superficial repetition of notes, but investigative study that goes beneath the surface to analyze the underlying patterns, structures, and form of the work.
Then of course, there's "harrowing" . . . but no, I think I'd better stop now. Otherwise we'll be here all night, jumping from one word to the next like one of those cowboys hopping between the roofs of train cars in a motion picture Western.
I just love the English language.