Encyclopedia Ocelotica: Bring on the Dancing Horses

The English language has all the restraint of a supermarket trolley dash winner when it comes to absorbing words.

How many people using the term ‘run amok’, for example, know the word ‘amok’ is of Malay origin but seems to have been dragooned into English usage at least 300 years ago?

Or, for that matter, that the word ‘dragoon’ is derived from a type of gun carried by mounted French forces during an even earlier period?

Many of these adopted words have fascinating origins, but only one can claim to have been helped into the dictionary by some dancing horses which may or may not have existed.

When we describe a person as a sybarite, we are saying they are devoted to all things luxurious and sensual.

The word refers to Sybaris, a city which lay at the bottom of the ‘boot’ of Italy when the southern part of the country was dominated by Ancient Greek culture.

It was founded centuries before the Christian era, and if surviving accounts are to be believed it was a fun place to be.

Fertile land and an advantageous coastal location made for profitable trading, and Sybaris grew very wealthy indeed. Chroniclers wrote extensively of the population’s love of feasting, entertainment and other fine things in life.

The advantages Sybaris enjoyed inevitably attracted the attention of would-be conquerors, and in or around 510BCE the city was conquered by the Krotoniates.

This is where the dancing horses come in, even though nobody knows for sure whether they danced at all.

According to a Greek chronicler who wrote about the conquest several centuries later, the Sybarite cavalry taught their horses to dance whenever music was played.

Faced by the Sybarite cavalry, the Krotoniates had flute players strike up a merry tune, prompting the horses to think it was party time and trot over, delivering their riders into the hands of the enemy.

If this is not true, it ought to be.