Weird Words 4

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1973 edition


And no, it isn’t edible and I haven’t forgotten how to spell (the French seem to have a much harder time spelling than I do). You are probably thinking of “pilaf” and it usually has the word “rice” in front of it.

The horse world is just chock full of weird words. Many of them are French if you are working in dressage. It looks like pee-affy, but that is not how it is said. I shouldn’t really get down on the French and their spelling, after all we have words like knight and caught and limb. And we don’t say k-niggit, k-ow-g-t, or lim-b.

Piaffe is French in origin, as you might have guessed from my earlier comments, and is most commonly spoken pee-aff, but I have also heard it said pee-off. I suppose that is what you might be if your horse doesn’t perform it properly in competition. Or maybe no. There is a saying:  there are no bad horses, only bad owners. I think you could substitute “rider” for “owner.” That would certainly have been my case. But I worked hard and I got better. When my horse would do something I didn’t want her to do, I would ask myself what I did wrong. I’d like to think other riders are as considerate.

Piaffe is basically a trot in place where the horse makes exaggerated movements of the front legs. There should be lots of bend in the front leg and the opposite rear leg should come off of the ground at the same time. The step (I don’t think you can really call it a gait because the horse does not cover any ground) was originally used to keep a horse warmed up and focused before battle. It’s kind of like how a city jogger will jog in place at a red traffic signal.

I’ve seen a lot of pictures from horse shows with riders in their shadbellies and top hats sitting on horses performing the piaffer and it is quite impressive. The horse manages to look very elegant. As for the riders, I’ve no quarrel with top hats, but those coats gotta go.

I like to include, here, words that I have personally used. I have not yet used piaffe in the course of a normal conversation, but I have used shadbelly (don’t even ask). You will never catch me wearing a shadbelly, of this I can assure you.


Remember those old black and white movies that they show late at night when only the insomniacs are awake? All the people talk kind of funny and the women run around in fancy gowns with cigarettes in long holders while the men wear those funny long-tailed tuxedo coats and smoke cigars. Those odd tuxedo coats that stop at the waist with a Weskit hem (if you draw a line along the bottom of a Weskit hem, it would make a “w”) and have the long, split tails hanging down the back are basically shadbellies.

It is a sad fact, but true, that not all riders are slim and fit. In my experience (oh, the poor horse) quite a few are overweight with bulging stomachs. It just seems to me that a standard show coat (looks a lot like a black blazer with shiny buttons and a short slit in the back) would be much more esthetic. I’m not saying overweight people shouldn’t ride horses (oh boy, I’m probably getting myself in trouble here), just that they shouldn’t wear shadbellies. I guess there’s no way for me express this opinion without being politically incorrect and seeming totally insensitive.

Almost forgot. I couldn’t really find any definitive etymology for this word. One entry mentioned that shad is a fish and, seriously, I don’t see how that relates.

Top Hat

Most of us know what a top hat looks like. And I’ll admit it’s not really a weird word, but I can’t help myself sometimes. Just seemed natural to go from shadbelly to top hat.

Thankfully, the horse show top hats are not nearly as tall as the classic top hat, otherwise they might provide too high of a profile and fly off the rider’s head during a speedy canter around the arena. Actually, I’ve no idea what keeps a rider’s top hat on his/her head. There are no straps visibly going under the chin as in the schooling and show helmets. But why are they called top hats?

The word top is defined as highest point, summit or crest. Your head certainly is the highest point on your body (as long as you are standing up, if you are lying down that could conceivably be your belly; I seem to be a bit fixated here). But wouldn’t that make every hat a top hat? I mean, you are not going to wear a hat on your shoulder, are you? Ooh! New fashion trend … shoulder hats … we could call them sha … okay, maybe not.

All I could find out about it (okay, so I only searched for a couple of minutes) said that the term dated from 1881 and is related to topper, which means the best of anything (first recorded in slang in 1709). Personally, I don’t see that a top hat is better than any other type of hat. Actually, they are inferior if the point is to keep your head comfortable in cold weather, though they would do a good job of keeping the sun off. Oh wait, here’s an idea and really, it just now popped into my head. Maybe they were worn to make a man appear taller because taller has always been associated with greater power and success in males. Now that makes sense to me. Top that!

As always, I’d be delighted to hear about any “weird words” that you know of or use regularly.

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

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