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shameless pleading

Dobby Horse

Whoa Nellie.

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.

21 comments to Dobby Horse

  • David

    The Derby is run at Epsom (in Surrey) and in England both the town of Derby and the race are alway pronounced but never spelt Darby.

  • Pat Fournier

    My mother was born in Ireland and it was a
    great treat for the family to go to Lincoln Park Amusement Park in Masachusetts. I always wanted to ride the “Dobby horses”, as she called them. They did go up and down and forward and back, but not at the speed indicated in the above article. Why, 65 years later, did I wonder where the name came from? I don’t know. But I looked it up and confirmed what I thought the source
    was. Fun to discover meanings and now I am satisfied.

  • Elaine

    My Irish-American grandparents (born in 1899 and 1901 respectively in Providence, RI) used to travel down to Crescent Park in Riverside, RI to ride the “dobby horses,” beautifully carved horses on a magnificent carousel in the summer. My parents went there when they were children and in turn took me when I was a child. I have taken my children there. All of the amusement park has been torn down but the carousel was saved and you can go every summer when it is open several days a week. I highly recommend it–the carousel is beautiful and riding it is a trip back in time.

  • Michelle

    Playing the game Scattagories with the kids, the category was something in an amusement park that starts with a D. I had no idea how to spell “dobby” horse, but recalled that my parents (of some scottish and english decent) called the merry go round by that name. Fun to see the background here and the comments.

  • Patty

    My husband just asked me, “Why would your mother call the merry-go-round” the darby horses? She actually has always called it the “dobby” horses, but I thought I was being smooth by covering up her RI accent. I laughed when I read this article, especially since my parents used to also go to Cresent Park. She is also of Irish/Scottish descent. Very interesting and now I can answer the question about her calling the merry-go-round the dobby horses.

  • Ed

    i thought this may also shed a little light as hobby horse was also mentioned and looking at this i thought that it could be also a cross over word hobby horse or dobbin a generic english name for a horse as explained here
    The word hobby is glossed by the OED as “a small or middle-sized horse; an ambling or pacing horse; a pony.” The word is attested in English from the 14th century, as Middle English hobyn. Old French had hobin or haubby, whence Modern French aubin and Italian ubino. But the Old French term is apparently adopted from English rather than vice versa. OED connects it to “the by-name Hobin, Hobby”, a variant of Robin” (compare the abbreviation Hob for Robert). This appears to have been a name customarily given to a cart-horse, as attested by White Kennett in his Parochial Antiquities (1695), who stated that “Our ploughmen to some one of their cart-horses generally give the name of Hobin, the very word which Phil. Comines uses, Hist. VI. vii.” Another familiar form of the same Christian name, Dobbin has also become a generic name for a cart-horse.

    Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, glosses “A strong, active horse, of a middle size, said to have been originally from Ireland; an ambling nag.”

    Hoblers or Hovellers were men who kept a light nag that they may give instant information of threatened invasion. (Old French, hober, to move up and down; our hobby, q.v.) In mediæval times their duties were to reconnoitre, to carry intelligence, to harass stragglers, to act as spies, to intercept convoys, and to pursue fugitives. Henry Spelman (d. 1641) derived the word from “hobby”.

    “Hobblers were another description of cavalry more lightly armed, and taken from the class of men rated at 15 pounds and upwards.” – John Lingard: The History of England, (1819), vol. iv. chap. ii. p. 116.
    The Border horses, called hobblers or hobbies, were small and active, and trained to cross the most difficult and boggy country, “and to get over where our footmen could scarce dare to follow.” – George MacDonald Fraser, The Steel Bonnets, The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers.

    A major pastime of Henry VIII (1491–1547) was that of horse racing. In those days, horses were known as hobbies. The term “hobby” then became to be associated with any pastime.

    other meaning

    From “hobby horse” came the expression “to ride one’s hobby-horse”, meaning “to follow a favourite pastime”, and in turn, the modern sense of the term Hobby.

    The term is also connected to the draisine, a forerunner of the bicycle, invented by Baron Karl von Drais. In 1818, a London coach-maker named Denis Johnson began producing an improved version, which was popularly known as the “hobby-horse

    hope this helps

  • Karen

    Hi,
    I can remember as a young child in Oakland Beach, Warwick, RI, my family use to walk down to the water area to ride the “dobby horses”. We use get clamcakes and doughboys as a treat too.
    Very pleasant memories.

  • katy

    Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts had the greatest “dobby horses” of all. When they were moved to San Diago I felt that was the end of Salisbury Beach for me but when I saw the restored and beautiful dobby horses in San Diago I knew they had found a great home. I’m also from Irish decent and to me they will always be the dobby horses.

  • Heather

    A few of my friends and I went to Canobie Lake Park. We are in our lat 40s ! I must say we had a blast! I am from the Merrimack valley (North Andover) and the rest of my friends are were from southern New Hampshire ,they had such fun ,making fun of me because I called the merri-go-round dobby horses and the dodgems (bumper cars). That I started to doubt my self! Sort of, But I was sure relieved to come home and go on line Jjust to be correct in my own little way!

    • Elizabeth

      Wow…yes, in addition to the “dobby horses”, we also rode in the bumper cars….great fun

    • I was born in Methuen, MA and moved just high sover the state line to Salem, NH when I was in 6th grade. My grandparents were from Ireland and they called the horses of a merry-go-round Dobby Horses too. I also called the bumper cars at Canobie the dodger car! Went to the dances at the Canobie Ballroom every Friday night during the early 60s. They had some of the biggest names performing. During the week it used to be a roller skating rink. Had my high school senior prom there.

  • Randy

    Our family, too, from Salem, NH, referred to the carousel as riding the “Dobby hosses.” I’m thinking it may have been part of the strong English heritage from the textile mill workers in Lawrence in the early 1900s – another holdover being what I now know as English style fish and chips … though we just knew it as fish and chips!

  • Ken

    I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts and as a child I would often go to Lincoln Park in Westport, MA and ride Hobby Horses though I like the Dodgems (Bumper Cars)better.

  • CCollins

    My mother (age 76–born and raised in Rhode Island) calls merry-go-rounds/carousels Dobby Horses too. She is 100% English ancestry too.

  • robert dewan

    it was great to see the hobby horse carousel in San Diago
    I always rode them at Salisbury beach Mass. BOB

  • robert dewan

    saw hobby horse in San Diago I a;ways rode them at Salisbury Beach Mass.BOB

  • Sharon P. Young

    I was raised in Rhode Island and remember riding the “Dobby Horses” all over New England. I rode them at Lincoln Park,Revere Beach, Salisbury Park in MA, Canobie Lake Park in NH, Crescent Park, Oakland Beach and Rocky Point in RI. I believe there was also one in Old Orchard Beach in ME. The best ones were at Lincoln Park and Crescent Park. They were fast (to a little kid) and as you circled around, there was a brass ring hanging on a pole, and if you were lucky enough to grab it, you got a free ride! The amusement parks are all gone now, but the memories remain. Like someone else mentioned, the one that was at Crescent Park is still there, well kept up, and as beautiful as ever (still has the calliope music, not the loud music that the ones have today! I hadn’t given a thought to the name “Dobby Horse” in years (if ever, that’s just what we called them). But now,I am in the process of refinishing an antique child’s toy. It is a metal horse that has wheels and a device (not pedals) that propels it along. It was originally painted to look like a carousel or merry-go-round horse, but we always called them “Dobby Horses”. For some unknown reason, I started to wonder why we called them “Dobby Horses”, and no one else did. So now I know! We also refer to the bumper cars as “Dodgems”, and I don’t know of anyone else who calls them this. Definitely a “New England” thing. Ah, such fond, happy memories! I really do miss these things and sometimes wish I could go back to those simpler, happier days! Sure would miss my modern conveniences, microwave, washers and dryers, color TV’s and etc. so I guess I’ll just stay where I am (like I have a choice!).
    I can dream, can’t I?

  • Patricia A. Sawyer

    I also grew up in north-eastern Massachusetts, Merrimack Valley, and like others who have posted replies here, have visited the amusement parks at Canobie Lake Park, Salisbury Beach, Old Orchard Beach, Whalom Park, Lakeview Park, (some of which no longer exist — although the original carousel from Lakeview in Dracut MA is now in Queens NY) and in this area, many people have always called a carousel or merry-go-round, the “Bobby Horses.” A discussion of this popped up in an on-line forum, and I became curious enough about the origins of the phrase to do a quick Google hunt — and here was Word Detective telling me that the actual phrase is “Dobby Horses.” Interesting….

  • Julie

    I grew up in Rhode Island going to Crescent Park too. We just came back from Disney World where the subject of the “Dobby Horses” vs “Carousel” came up. My father was the child of Italian immigrants whose English must have been influenced by the many Irish and English in the area. He used the phrase “Dobby Horses” exclusively. We didn’t start calling it the Crescent Park Carousel until the park was closed and the marketing for the historic carousel increased. Loved reading the comments – brought back so many happy memories.

  • Elizabeth Honneyman

    Thanks for the information. I really enjoyed all of the other comments. Lincoln Park (Near New Bedford, Mass) was our favorite place. In addition to riding the dobby horses, Bumper Cars (dodgems)and the rickety old wooden roller coaster, for my little sisters there was the duck rides that moved back and forth. Then once I turned 14 I was allowed to go roller skating at the Lincoln Park Roller Rink. A few years later my cousin and I sneaked into the Lincoln Park Ballroom so we could dance. Great fun!

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