The Creative Exploration of Language


Horn is a deceptively simple word.  As a noun, it refers to a hard protuberance that sticks out from the head of certain animals.  It also refers to a class of instruments played by blowing, which were originally made from animal horns.  From a third perspective, horn refers to a device installed in your car that is used to make loud warning sound.  This meaning, like that of the musical instrument, comes from the fact that loud warning sounds were originally created by blowing into an animal horn.

As a verb, the ancient connection of horns with cuckoldry survives in the modern phrase “to horn in on,” which is used to describe the act of taking possession of something that belongs to someone else.  This sexual connotation is also present in the adjectival form horny.

While certainly divergent, one can see how they are connected and how they likely developed without too much effort.  What got me thinking about this word, however, was a different usage that seemed not to fit with others: the baseball phrase “around the horn”.  For those not familiar with the phrase, following an infield out or strikeout, the defensive players on the field customarily throw the baseball to each of their infield teammates at the various stations of the infield diamond before tossing it back to the pitcher to face the next batter.  The more I thought about this phrase, the more I wondered why the infield diamond should be referred to as a horn.

Around the same time that I had begun thinking about horn and its various uses, I stumbled across the fact that the word for corner in the Scandinavian languages was some variation on horn (horn in Icelandic, hjørne in Danish and Norwegian and hörn in Swedish).  Initially, this seemed like a strange coincidence, but then I recalled that Germanic languages generally have an “h” in place of a “c” in Latin and its daughter languages.  For instance, the English word hundred (honderd in Dutch, hundert in German, etc.) comes from the same root as the Latin centum.  Similarly, the Latin canis and the English hound (hund in German and Scandinavian, hond in Dutch and Afrikaans) spring from the same root.  In each of the examples above, the Germanic “h” is a “c” in Latin and the Romance languages.

The word corner entered English through French (corne) and is ultimately derived from the Latin cornu.  It replaced the native English term hyrne, which was cognate with its Germanic cousins.  Based on this, I came to the conclusion that the use of the word horn in the phrase “around the horn” might simply be a survival of an archaic term and was simply another way to say “around the corner”.

At first, this seemed a bit unlikely, as hundreds of years lay between the adoption of the word corner into the English language and the invention of the game of baseball.  However, as I researched additional uses of the word horn, I came across it as a geographical term in reference to two specific locations: the Horn of Africa and Cape Horn in South America.  In both cases, the usage of the word horn fits with its archaic meaning of a corner, or a place where two sides come together and meet in a point.

The final twist in the saga of horn is that, in the case of Cape Horn, the name seems to be a coincidence.  The southern tip of South America was rounded and named by Dutch sea captain Willem Corneliszoon Schouten in 1616 and named Kaap Hoorn, after his hometown of Hoorn back in the Netherlands.  However, in a truly wonderful piece of synchronicity, the medieval history of the city of Hoorn indicates that it was so named because it stuck out into the waters of the Zuiderzee, and this despite the common word in Dutch for corner being hoek.

In the end, it seems that my initial hunch was correct and that a commonplace phrase used on a daily basis in American sports vernacular hides an interesting and complex medieval linguistic survival.

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