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What's a Hippodrome?

Updated on June 5, 2012

This Little Critter is Lost


Hippodrome Lore

If I set out in my car to find a hippodrome without knowing what one is, I'm doomed to failure. After driving around for a while, I'd realize that I won't find one anywhere near my house, unless I live in a few select areas in the US. That's because hippodromes aren't what you'd expect.

In fact I was disappointed to learn that I could not see, at a hippodrome, any big animal swimming in a river and devouring plants. This is because hippodromes (found in places like Maryland, Florida, California, New York, South Carolina) are various types of buildings, mostly theaters. They also could be race tracks, bars, and office buildings.

People seem to like the word "hippo." It has clout, like a real hippo. Also, there can be an unparalleled silliness factor in the word.

But the root meaning of "hippodrome" is a horse-racing track. In the ancient Greek language, with a different alphabet only scholars can read, the word "hippo" meant horse. In fact, when we say hippo and mean hippopotamus, we picture an animal whose name ties together two Greek words: hippo (horse) who lives in a "potamus" (river). Yes, you guessed it, a river horse.

In Greece, two thousand years ago, you might hear someone pronounce a word starting with hippo (horse) and ending with drome (race or track). There were horse racing fans back then too. Constantinople had a fabulous hippodrome about 1900 years ago, or so I've read, where people could come out for the horse races.

And yet, of all the hippodromes in the US, I have found only one, in Augusta, South Carolina, that is devoted to horse racing. The others are theaters, except for the two in NYC, one being a high-rise building, and the other a thriving bar.

In San Francisco, an old hippodrome going back to the days of the wild west, served a special clientele as it was not only a theater, but also a burlesque house (one of ill repute). Sadly, the edifice no longer exists.

There's a lot of confusion here. A hippo doesn't look like a water horse. It looks more like a giant pig.

Also, how can hippodromes, which are mainly theaters, ever contain horse races? Even miniature horses running up and down the aisles would be impossible for the ushers to control.

And finally, any thought of a horse inside the old San Francisco hippodrome would be most inappropriate.

Let's not dwell on these troubling thoughts. Instead, we should tie together the Greek, the animal, the audience, the entertainment, and other features and see a connection.

There we have it now. The ancient, original meaning of a hippodrome was a horse racing track, but the modern meaning is now associated with theaters, particularly the beautiful performing arts center in Baltimore, Maryland.


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      yo hippo 6 years ago

      I didn't know that hippopotamus meant river hourse... thats EPIC!