Usage Notes

Do You Send in the ‘Cavalry’ or the ‘Calvary’?

How to remember the difference between these commonly confused words

What to Know

On the battlefield, one should send in the cavalry, which is the word for an army component mounted on horseback. The similarly spelled word calvary however, refers to "an open air depiction of the crucifixion," or more recently "an experience of intense suffering."

When you find yourself facing daunting circumstances and seemingly innumerable foes, do you figuratively sound the trumpets and call in the cavalry? Or do you decide to call in the calvary? If it is the former, you are on the right track, and we hope that help will soon come to your aid. If you opt for the latter, you have just made a request, which we hope will go unfulfilled, for someone to send you “an experience of intense suffering.”


You're in trouble! Think quick: do you call in the cavalry, or the calvary?

These two words are often confused, enough so that we record the pronunciation for calvary (ˈkal-və-rē) as a variant on the headword for cavalry. Why would we do such a thing? Because a large number of people pronounce cavalry as calvary, even if they have no trouble distinguishing between the two words in writing. And our pronunciation for this variant does note that it is stigmatized; we place a little ÷ before pronunciation variants which many regard as unacceptable. (This sign, by the way, is called an obelus, in case you didn’t want to keep referring to it by its better-known name, which is "that division sign…you know, the one with a line and a dot above it and below it…you know the one I’m talking about? Wait, do you have a piece of paper and a pen? I’ll show you what I mean.")

Origins of Cavalry and Calvary

Although they begin and end with the same groups of letters, cavalry and calvary are not related in either origin or meaning. Cavalry (“an army component mounted on horseback”) comes from the Italian word cavalleria, which may mean either “cavalry” or “chivalry.” Two earlier meanings of cavalry in English, now both obsolete, were “horsemanship” and “knighthood.”

Calvary was first used in our language over a thousand years ago, as the name of the place outside ancient Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. This name comes to English from the Latin word for “skull” (calvāria). In the 18th century calvary began to be used with the meaning of “an open-air representation of the crucifixion of Jesus,” and then later took on the sense of “experience of intense suffering.” When referring to the specific place the word is capitalized; when using calvary to indicate a representation or an instance of suffering it is written in lowercase.

If you have trouble distinguishing between these two words, it may help to remember that the word dealing with horsemen has val in the middle of it. If you associate this word with the long-running comic strip Prince Valiant (who occasionally appears on horseback), you will make the correct choice.

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