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shameless pleading






 That uniform smells funny.

Dear Word Detective: I was hoping you could explain the origins of the word “livery” which, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with organ meat best served grilled with onions. What it DOES seem to have something to do with is a place to keep and care for horses in old western towns and, even more strangely (to me), the design of the paint and branding on airplanes. Are these words the same “livery”?  Am I right that they have nothing to do with liver? — Fernando.

That’s a great question, but you lost me with “organ meat best served grilled with onions.” All I could think of was Samuel Johnson’s declaration: “It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.” Speaking as a cucumber lover, I think Johnson must have been thinking of liver.

You’re absolutely correct that “livery” has nothing to do with “liver,” a fact for which we should all be grateful. The origin of the word “liver” for the organ once considered the seat of emotions in humans (go figure) is a mystery, but it may derive from ancient Indo-European roots meaning “fatty or greasy.” Yum. Of course, “liver” can also mean “a person who lives,” as well as being the informal name of the sea bird (“liver bird”) that appears on the official seal of the City of Liverpool (which is, I think we can agree, a fairly appalling name for a city).

The word “livery” entered English around 1300 from French and has been spewing out new meanings at a rabbits-in-Australia rate ever since. The Old French source, “livere,” meant generally “to give, deliver,” and can be traced back to the Latin “liberare,” to free (also the source of “liberate” and “deliver”). All of our senses of “livery” in English carry some sense, albeit often diluted, of “giving.”

One of the biggies is “livery” in the sense of “identifying marks or color schemes,” such as your example of designs and color schemes on aircraft. This sense developed from “livery” meaning the uniforms given to servants of nobility, etc., an outgrowth of “livery” meaning the food given to servants. This “livery” also meant the food, shelter, etc., given to horses, which is where “livery stables” (where food, grooming, etc., is included in the fee) got their name. A “livery cab” was originally a horse-drawn cab that was available to the public for hire. But today,  at least in New York City, “livery cab” is used to mean a taxicab that can be booked in advance and generally (as distinguished from “medallion” cabs) does not pick up fares on the street.

“Livery” in the sense of “uniform” has gradually been extended to mean simply “characteristic clothing, especially of a profession.” Thus a “liveried butler” would be dressed as Jeeves and a soldier’s “livery” might prominently feature of camouflage. The distinctive “livery” worn by servants and retainers of royalty and nobility in medieval London became emblematic of the guilds and trade associations that later developed known as “Livery Companies,” some of which survive today, albeit more as civic associations than anything else.

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