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Monday, January 2, 2012

Of hordes and hoarding

I hope you all now have a nice hoard of presents and shiny electronic devices as a result of your loved ones battling the hordes in the shops before Christmas and in the Boxing Day sales. If only they could have bought you a handy way to distinguish "horde" and "hoard", which are very frequently confused.

Horde, defined by the OED as "A large gathering of people, esp. of wild or fierce people; a gang, troop, crew", has a fascinating etymology.  The Persian word urdū meant "camp". Russian borrowed this as orda to designate a tribe or troop of Asiatic nomads, dwelling in camps , and migrating from place to place for pasturage, or for war or plunder. From Russian it spread to Polish, where it acquired an initial h, and from thence to other European languages in the 1500s. By the 1600s it was already being used to mean any large gathering, especially an unruly one. This "horde" is typically used only as a noun.
Now, in case you're making wild etymological leaps and wondering whether urdū  has anything to do with "Urdu" (the language of Pakistan), well, ..... yes, it does! How exciting is that? Back in Asia, the phrase zabān-i-urdū was used to mean ‘the language of the camp’. This became shortened to urdū and the language came to be called that. (For a couple of English words with Urdu origins, visit this post and this post.)
The other "hoard" goes all the way back to Old English, and was spelled hord from that time until the 18th century, when the "hoard" spelling took over, probably on the analogy of "board". Hord was the Anglo-Saxon word for "treasure" (a word derived from French), but as was typical for money-related words after the Norman Conquest, it was replaced to a certain extent by its French equivalent. However, we kept "hoard" as a useful word for an accumulation of things, with slightly different connotations than "treasure". "Hoard" can also be used as a verb.
It's hard to find a mnemonic to help you remember which word has the "a" and which one doesn't, but here's my best stab at it. Many synonyms of "hoard" also have an "a":
save stash cache gather garner amass 
For "horde", think of its synonym "crowd". No "a"!
I hope that helps!


  1. Hello!

    Happy New Year!

    Well, yes, I admit it: I would have asked about the Urdu language potential connection.

    I also confess to having an idea about the difficulty of writing, as I'm flirting with it myself.

    Now to the current matters: the term "horde" in Europe is (or should be, as far as I know) historically related to the Tartars and their Eastern European, early Middle Ages invasions (1241, for instance), as well as their state entity, "the Golden Horde" (no, not "The Golden Hoard"! :) ). If the associated term made it into Europe so late, I wonder how the Tartars were referred to in the 13th-14th centuries.

    And one more thing: in Romanian, there is the word "urda" for a type of (unsophisticated) cheese, traditionally made by shepherds. (oops!) So, I'll try to investigate this myself.

    I'm not doing it on purpose! I strongly suspect "herd" and "horde" are one and the same thing. And then these shepherds having this word, "urda" ... Hmm ... :)

    Finally, just in passing: I can still cannot understand why the word for "shepherd" is not "sheepherder" ... :)

    Thank you!

  2. Great final tip on how to remember the difference between the two - thanks!


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.