The Grammarphobia Blog

Is there a “hearse” in “rehearse”?

Q: It’s probably apocryphal, but I heard that the word “rehearsal” originated as a sort of contraction that combined the terms “re” and “hears” and “all,” as in the director “re-hears all” the play, etc. Any help?

A: The verb “rehearse” originally meant something like rake over, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology and the Ayto Dictionary of Word Origins. It comes from Old French, “re” (repeat) plus “hercier” (“to rake or harrow”). The Old French noun for a harrow, a plowing implement, was “herce.”

“Rehearse” was adopted into English in the 13th century and meant repeat or recite or say over again. By the 16th century, it was being used in the sense of practicing a play. Oddly, the English word “hearse” comes from the same source. In the 13th century the English borrowed from Old French to create the word “hers” to describe a framework, something like a harrow, used to hold candles and decorations in place over a coffin. By the 17th century, a “hearse” was a vehicle for carrying a coffin.