Helpful Linguistic Hints: Cavalry vs. Calvary


I’ve decided to share my gift with all of you.

When I was a little girl, my parents put me in a private school. In private school, at the age of eight, I learned how to differentiate between the parts of speech, how to diagram sentences, and the absolutely pertinent information that “one persuades to, and convinces that.”

The consequence of all this is that I have a pitiful obsession with grammar. Tragically, this consumes my life. But lucky for you, this means receiving helpful (if unwelcome) linguistic hints every time I get feverish over a typo.

This week’s topic: Cavalry vs. Calvary

Calvary, for those who don’t know, is the hill atop which Christ was crucified. You can read about it on handy-dandy wiki here. (Those of you familiar with the movie “Dogma” may know it by another name.)

Cavalry are infantrymen in state militias. The great Mel Gibson, for instance, headed up the cavalry in “The Patriot”; the smash hit blockbuster “We Were Soldiers” was also all about cavalrymen.

Henceforward, please make a distinction between the two. If I have to watch one more documentary on the History channel on which learned “historians” discuss the way that the calvary charged in and won a battle, I will have to quit the English language altogether.

Thank you.


P.S. – The word “definitely” does not have an “a” in it anywhere.

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35 Comments

  1. mrbi8b0 said,

    March 28, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for the info!! I was just discussing the difference between the 2 words and decided it was time to learn…

    Gotta love Wiki: (yes, I use improper words)

    Wiki Cavalry

    Wiki Calvary

  2. Jennifer said,

    June 26, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks! I consider myself pretty intelligent and somewhat intellectual, but this has bothered me for some time; only today did I receive the notion to google “cavalry vs. calvary.” Yours is the first page I found. And it certainly answered my question. I leave your page a tad less ignorant than I was before finding it. Thanks again! :)

    ~Jen

  3. Dan said,

    February 2, 2009 at 6:36 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am so tired of hearing learned professors, or worse yet, former NCOs telling me about the calvary. I was beginning to think that perhaps my screaming at the TV or audio lecture was a sign of my insanity.

  4. alan said,

    April 5, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    I also have an obsession with language, and I must say “props” on what you are doing.

  5. Ariel said,

    August 26, 2009 at 12:12 am

    pretty blog. actually, the correct term is “luckily for you” instead of “lucky for you”, since you are using the word as an adverb instead of an adjective. “calvary” and “cavalry” always confuse me though – thanks for the distinction.

  6. Grinder said,

    October 30, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    I’ve always wondered about the meaning of Calvary. Thank you.

    To clarify, and infantryman is specifically an unmounted or foot-soldier. Cavalry are Mounted soldiers. The reason Mel Gibson lead “Cavalry” in We were soldiers is that the US has converted units formerly mounted on horses to “Air Cavalry”… which essentially “ride” helicopters.

    So all Infantrymen and Cavalrymen are soldiers, and are then distinguished as either of these titles by their roles therein. Militia on the other hand are generally untrained, or lightly trained citizens who volunteer or are conscripted into service as opposed to regular forces who are full-time professional soldiers.

  7. Leonard Wm Halling, MD said,

    January 17, 2010 at 11:38 pm

    Regarding the frequently confused terms, cavalry and cavalry, it may be helpful in maintaining the distinction if you think of the etymology of the two words. The cavalry are “horsemen” (despite the fact the modern cavalry use tanks instead of horses. Patton was originally a “horse soldier and one of the first to foresee the future of a “mechanized cavalry.) The important point which will keep you from mixing the position of the “l” and the “v” is that the Italian word for horse is
    “cavallo.”
    For reinforcement of the distinction, the cranial cavity is called by anatomists, the “calvarium.” The connection with the crucifixion of Christ is that that act took place at Jerusalem outside of the wall in a place called Golgotha or the “place of the skull.” Since at the time of Constatine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity, and whose mother Helena is said to have discovered that site and which was subsequently covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is no longer possible to perceive a skull. The British Soldier and Emissary, Chinese Gordon, discovered a typical ancient tomb including the rolling stone below a hillside where an artifact resembles a skull created by shallow caves or indentations that resemble a set of eye sockets. For many Protestants that is the real site of the crucifixion. The important point for remembering the distinction is that “calvarium” (“l” first) is skull. “Cavallo (“v” first) is “horse.” Whichever mnemonic works better for you, but please try to make the distinction, especially if you are speaking in public on either issue.

  8. Colleen said,

    April 29, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Building on Dr. Halling’s disclosure that the Italian word for horse is cavallo, the Italian word for horseman is cavaliere. One has only to think in English of a cavalier knight to draw a yet more solid mnemonic line between the term cavalry and a mounted soldier.

    As an additional reinforcement of the distinction, one might use the first three letters of CALvary to bring up the words “Christ As Laid.” I know it’s neither perfect nor for everyone — it’s merely offered as a potential mnemonic.

  9. Erin B. said,

    June 17, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    I always cringe whenever someone on TV says that they’re sending in the calvary. It’s said so much, though, that I was beginning to wonder if I was the one who was wrong. I decided to Google it because I just heard it on an episode of FlashForward. Thank you!

  10. sarah smarrelli said,

    July 30, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    love this site!

  11. Sharron said,

    August 21, 2010 at 4:43 am

    Thanks for the distinction. I’m currently watching the first season of Supernatural and a Native American just used the term “calvary” about 50 times in one conversation. I cringe every time I hear it. Almost as much as I do when someone says nuculer.

    • Babs said,

      January 24, 2011 at 7:25 am

      My pet hate is “excape”!

  12. Catherine said,

    December 2, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Thank you. You have just provided a test for my sanity; I pass.

  13. Aisha Mohammed said,

    December 15, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Hey, Thanks.

    Could you do a similar breakdown re: Dilemma vs conundrum.

  14. Mike said,

    January 16, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Interesting page! This was a chronic source of confusion. One day, the following hit me over the head, and I haven’t confused the two terms since:

    CALifornia and CALvary are both locations.

    Done, no?

  15. John said,

    February 13, 2011 at 8:35 am

    I always remember that in Calvary the Lord comes first; so we have an “L”.
    In Cavalry, violence comes first; so we have a “V”.

    • Ellie said,

      September 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm

      John, I like the way you think! That will definitely help me remember. There’s is a children’s song I teach to my Kindergartners in Bible class on Sunday morning that goes, “I may may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry…” and I always have to force my brain to not say “Calvary.” Unfortunately, that song has associations with both “Lord” and “Violence,” so your trick may fail me there!

  16. PJ said,

    February 16, 2011 at 10:43 am

    I scroogled ‘calvary and cavalry’ (it’s better than google and doesn’t store shedloads of cookies on your computer) and found this page, so cheers!

  17. Kady said,

    March 17, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all the comments. I also found your page first when I did a Bing search for the difference. Though I knew Calvary for Christ and cavalry like infantry (lry, try)… I was looking for something to really sink it home for me. I liked all the other suggestions and because I am homeschooling and trying to teach my son the importance of the origin of words… when we search the dictionary. So knowing about calvarium and cavallo was very helpful. Thanks.
    p.s. my pet peeves aks (not ask) acrosst (not across) anyways (not anyway). I am sure we all have our list.

  18. Andrea said,

    April 20, 2011 at 2:19 am

    Oh this is great!
    I knew the difference but looked it up to be sure when I saw it misspelled on a forum! She wrote Calvery. O-o

    I can’t stand when I see definAtely spelled this way… UGH!
    Also, Nucular gets on my LAST nerve.
    I’m with Kady on the ‘acrosst’. What’s that all about?
    Oh, and mischievous does not have an ‘i’ after the v, therefore it is NOT pronounced Mis Chee VEEous… ARGH!

  19. *witness said,

    May 13, 2011 at 5:42 am

    Thank you for your funny frankness. While I share your penchant for good grammar, I do wail through the bleak fog which our educational factories create in graduating persons who think your is you’re, then is than, and that any talk of you and me must end bluntly with I, I, I yi yi.

    *witness

  20. Aragorn said,

    June 26, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Thanks for this information. It was very helpful to me!

    My pet hate is the new meanings of words like ‘queer’ and ‘gay’. The original meanings are MUCH better.

  21. Andrews Osei said,

    September 15, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    You know such explanation is wonderful,but ‘calvary’ is not found in the dictionary. Why is it so? It mostly leaves some of us confused

    • sabepa said,

      September 15, 2011 at 2:36 pm

      Interesting! I suppose it isn’t in the dictionary because it is a proper noun – a place. I don’t suspect you would find “Milwaukee” or “Mount Sinai” in the dictionary, either!

  22. Kathleen said,

    November 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    This is a great discussion about the words and their origins. Thanks! I came looking because Bill O’Reilly, in the audio version of his new best seller about the Lincoln assassination pronounces the military word like the religious word all through the first section of the book! I can’t believe the publisher and editors let it be distributed that way! Kathleen

  23. Matt said,

    December 18, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Just for fun, how many words have 3 “a”s in them? Bazaar, Aardvark, Banana, bandana. Can you think of more?

    PS Rhetoric has 3 meanings. It has come to mean empty rehtoric in common usage. It used to refer to a fine art of political discourse, reason and argument (or along those lines), which sadly no longer exists to substantiate the original definition of the word! I brought this up to illustrate how language evolves or devloves with culture.

    PPS A dilemma describes a problem that has two alternative solutions (or choices), but neither offers a pleasant, favorable or advantageous outcome. In other words you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

  24. Anna said,

    December 29, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    I found this page particularly appropriate today, the 121st anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. As a teacher of both English and history, I will take full advantage of the opportunity to double-dose everyone I know with the clear-cut distinction between these two words.

  25. Pat Miners said,

    January 3, 2012 at 4:56 am

    In the Rose Parade today, NBC described some horses as being from a ‘calvary’ group. So why didn’t Jesus ride a horse up Calvary hill?

  26. April 15, 2012 at 2:31 am

    I am shocked and astonished to find the otherwise learned Ian Toll write in Six Frigates (p. 313), “Calvary militia companies from Georgetown and Washington escorted the president-elect’s carriage…”

  27. April 19, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    Kathleen, I am listening to that book (Killing LIncoln), and I squirm everytime he mispronounces that word! This guy claims to be such a scholar/ historian, and to think he doesn’t know any better, and that no one caught the mistake is amazing to.
    Linda

  28. Kevin E. Acosta said,

    June 8, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Arghh, Billo the Clown. I had to use an ad hominem attack for that gas bag. Otherwise, great discussion. I already knew the difference since I enlisted in the Army and served in an Air Defense unit. We had missions with both armored cav and air cav units but I also heard many military folks mispronouce the word. I am also into the etymology of words and really appreciate all the insight from the above comments.

    As an atheist and former Christian, I still enjoyed your blog. Keep it up and thanks again for having this particular discussion. My all time pet peeve would have to be the mispronunciation of “mischievous.” I remember having a debate with my English teacher in junior high school about this word. That really grates me.

  29. Trisha said,

    August 17, 2012 at 7:11 am

    It’s hilarious to me that this is one of my pet peeves too, and I just googled it and found it on YOUR BLOG :D

  30. Jerry said,

    August 28, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    My wife and me were just debating this very subject! Just kidding! That is the one that gets me! Our President and First Lady commonly make this mistake.

  31. Gary Owen said,

    January 24, 2014 at 2:07 am

    For the record “Cavalry” is not “Infantry”, “Infantry” walk, “Cavalry” are mounted… on horses, helicopters as in We Were Soilders, they were “Air Cav”


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