Dear Word Detective: Growing up in New England from English and Scottish heritage, the merry-go-round was referred to in my family as riding the “Darby (or Dobby) Horses.” Where did that term originate? — Elizabeth.
Whoa, flashback time. I must have been to dozens of carnivals and amusement parks in my life, but nothing can compare to my first love, Playland in Rye, New York, just across the state line from where I grew up in Connecticut. Playland, located on the shore of Long Island Sound, first opened in 1928, and retains a simplicity and innocence close to its original form (undoubtedly because it is owned and run by the Town of Rye itself).
Playland boasts two merry-go-rounds, both perfectly preserved masterpieces of the art, one the Grand Carousel with elaborately carved horses and a majestic Italian band organ. The other, built in 1926, is one of only three “Derby Racer” carousels still in existence. Derby Racers were merry-go-rounds where the horses actually moved forward and back (as well as up and down) as the carousel spun at three times the usual speed. The Playland horses no longer move forward and back, but the Derby Racer ride is still too strenuous for many people (as one Playland visitor wrote online, “If you ride this thing once a day for two weeks, you’ll have abs like Chuck Norris”).
The Derby Racer ride took its name (as did the Kentucky Derby) from “Derby” as commonly used in the name of races since the founding of a famous annual horse race by the Earl of Derby in Derby, England in 1780. The “derby” hat (also called a “bowler”) was at one time traditional racetrack head wear.
“Darby” is a common alternate pronunciation and spelling of “Derby” in England, so it’s possible that your family was using the term “Darby horses” based on the racing motif of carousels.
It’s more likely, however, that your family meant “Dobby horse,” which is an old English term for what we would call a “hobby-horse,” a wooden replica of a horse, today usually just a horse’s head on a stick used in play by children. “Dobby” is itself an old English dialect term (a variant of the name “Robbie,” as is “hobby”) for a simple, silly person, perhaps of the sort to be amused by such a contraption.
Dobby-horses and hobby-horses were, however, originally far more elaborate wicker replicas of horses fastened around the waists of actors in theater productions in early England, allowing them to simulate riding a horse. Thus any replica of a horse came to be known as a “Darby horse” or “hobby-horse,” and referring to a carousel as “the dobby horses” makes perfect sense.
By the way, when we refer to an activity such as stamp collecting as a “hobby,” the original sense was that the “hobbyist” is as obsessively devoted to his pastime as a small child who rides his horse’s head “hobby-horse” for hours on end.