I wrote yesterday about the origin of Plantagenet as related in the Book of Firsts' essay on "Who was the first Plantagenet king of England?" (Henry II.) There was a second interesting origin later in the essay, related to the murder in 1170 of Thomas Becker, the archbishop of Canterbury, by four knights "who took literally Henry's frustrated outburst -- 'Of the cowards that eat my bread, is there none that will rid me of this upstart priest?' ... They cornered Becket in his own cathedral of Canterbury and, after an angry verbal tussle, hacked his brains out on the steps of the altar." (Gruesome but great description there.)
Becket's tomb and altar at Canterbury became a pilgrimage site, and the Book of Firsts says:
- "More than two centuries later, Geoffrey Chaucer imagined a group of English pilgrims who told tales on their leisurely way to Canterbury ... and the easy pace at which such pilgrims urged their horses ultimately gave us our verb canter."
The American Heritage Dictionary has a great word history that further explains the origin of canter:
- Most of those who have majored in English literature, and many more besides, know that Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were told by a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to visit the shrine of England's famous martyr Thomas à Becket. Many pilgrims other than Chaucer's visited Canterbury on horse, and phrases such as Canterbury gallop, Canterbury pace, and Canterbury trot described the easy gait at which they rode to their destination. The first recorded instance of one of these phrases, Canterbury pace, is found in a work published before 1636. However, in a work written in 1631 we find a shortened form, the noun Canterbury, meaning "a canter," and later, in 1673, the verb Canterbury, meaning "to canter." This verb, or perhaps the noun, was further shortened, giving us the verb canter, first recorded in 1706, and the noun canter, first recorded in 1755.