Calvary vs. cavalry?

The noun Calvary references the location of Christ’s crucifixion or an experience of intense suffering. The noun cavalry cites a highly mobile military unit.

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What is the difference between calvary and cavalry?

Ah, the English language. So many words and opportunities to epically confuse the meaning of one term with another. As is the case with the nouns “cavalry” and “calvary,” which not only have different meanings but separate pronunciations and spellings. 

Capitalized “Calvary” is the location in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. When “Calvary” is not a location, it’s either a representation of the biblical scene (sometimes lowercase) or an experience of intense mental or physical suffering. 

Cavalry” (note the placement of letters) is a noun that describes a highly mobile military unit. In the old days, this meant cavalry traveled by horse. But in modern times, a cavalry is either a ceremonial role (for history’s sake) or a military unit that travels by motorized transportation. 

Understanding the confusion between calvary and cavalry

In all fairness, it’s easy to see why the two words are commonly mixed up or misspelled: they both share the same seven letters. 

According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, the similarity in letters causes English speakers to pronounce “cavalry” (/ka-vel-ree/) as “calvary” (/kal-ve-ree/) — a phenomenon caused by something called “metathesis” (Garner 138). 

Metathesis is the phonological process of transposing sounds, syllables, or letters in a word or phrase (591). In fact, the word metathesis derives from Late Latin transpositio (‘to transpose’) via Greek metatithenai (‘to put in a different order’). 

The concept of metathesis is not as foreign as you may think. The process causes other common speech errors, such as confusing “anenome for “anemone” or “asterix” or “asterisk.” Two other prevalent mishaps include switching “nucular” for “nuclear” or “perscription” for “prescription.” 

What does calvary mean?

As mentioned above, the word “calvary” is a noun with three distinct meanings. The most formal definition of “Calvary” (always capitalized) references a hill outside Jerusalem’s walls where Jesus Christ was crucified. Anyone familiar with this religious location might also call it “Golgotha,” a term that also means “graveyard” or “burial place” for informal contexts.  

Example sentences:

  • “Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ depicts Jesus falling three times with the cross on the way to Calvary.” 
  • “Leaders from the Calgary church discussed the psychological impact of visiting Calvary hill and his mausoleum inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

Additionally, any depiction or representation of Christ’s crucifixion may go by the word “calvary,” but it might not be capitalized depending on whether it’s a proper noun. 

Example sentences:

  • “The artist’s rendition of ‘The Calvary’ is inspired by his love of the gospels.” 
  • “The new calvaries take up most of the church’s shop space.” 
  • “The calvary troupe plans to perform the biblical reenactment on Friday.” 

Lastly, the noun calvary (always lowercase) can reference ‘an ordeal’ or ‘an experience of great suffering’ (Garner 138). 

Examples sentences:

  • “The trip was more of a calvary than a vacation in paradise.” 
  • “All humans suffer through their own mental calvary.”
  • “How much longer can we endure this calvary?”

Synonyms

Affliction, agony, calamity, cross, curse, Gehenna, hell, misery, ordeal, torment, tragedy, trial, tribulation.

Word history of calvary

According to Lexico, the word Calvary stems from Late Latin calvaria for ‘skull,’ a translation of Koinē Greek Golgotha (‘place of skull’) that derives from an Aramaic form of Hebrew gulgoleth (also meaning ‘skull’). 

What does cavalry mean?

The noun cavalry (sometimes written as plural cavalries) traditionally references soldiers who led the battlefield on horseback. Historical examples include the Mongol armies from nomadic societies of Asia, mounted knights of medieval Europe, or even armed forces from the American Civil War (three mere examples of the plethora that existed). 

The occurrence of traditional horse cavalries continued into World War II, but most infantry units began using motorized transportation during the 20th century. Since then, the use of “cavalry” tends to reference modern armies who travel in helicopters or other forms of armored vehicles, while the original sense of “cavalry” makes an appearance for the sake of ceremonial roles. 

Photo courtesy of British Library: “Charge of the French Lancers at Waterloo.” Photo taken from “British Battles on Land and Sea” by James Grant (1873). 

Sentence examples:

  • “Mongol cavalry units conquered opponents across vast, difficult terrain.”
  • “Warriors of the cavalry reaped the advantages of greater height and inertial mass over those who fought on foot.” 
  • “During the Ancient and Middle Ages, cavalries were the most mobile of the combat arms.” 
  • “The French general led the cavalry charge through Russian military lines.”

Synonyms

Cavalrymen, horsemen, horse riders, mounted troops, troopers.

What is “the cavalry”?

When phrased as “the cavalry,” the noun references an emergency help or rescue team (often traveling by helicopter or vehicle). 

Sentence examples:

  • “That’s it. It’s time to call in the cavalry.”
  • “We’ve been waiting for the cavalry since February.” 
  • “The politician called in the cavalry for damage control over a controversial tweet.” 

Synonyms

Liberator, rescuer, saviour. 

Word history of cavalry

The noun cavalry went through several adaptations before arriving in English in the 16th century. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “cavalry” derives from Middle French cavalerie and earlier Italian cavalaria for ‘soldiers on horseback.’ Both words incorporate the noun cavallo for ‘horse’ (from Latin caballus), which is also found in English cavalier for ‘mounted soldier.’

Published examples of calvary and cavalry

Now that we understand the difference between “calvary” and “cavalry,” it’s worth taking a moment to see how these terms actually appear in mainstream media. For instance, most dictionaries state that we can use lowercase “calvary” to describe depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion, but in most cases, you’ll find it capitalized. 

Examples of Calvary (religious context)

  • “At last, I descend the ramparts at Lion’s Gate, which heralds the start of the Via Dolorosa, the crooked network of shop-edged lanes that Jesus Christ walked en route to his crucifixion at Calvary.” — National Geographic
  • “Male, who is a devout Christian, was delighted to be in Jerusalem where he visited Golgotha, otherwise known as Calvary, where Jesus was crucified.” — The Jerusalem Post
  • “The painting is titled Calvary, and while it’s unclear exactly how or where or for how much Bieber is selling it (maybe DM him?), it should fetch a pretty penny.” — W Magazine

Examples of calvary (great suffering)

  • “Her tale can only be defined as gut-wrenching: She was a child when the abuse began, she says, and ‘it was a Calvary that lasted seven years.’” — Crux
  • “‘With health care services on the verge of collapse and the general welfare of health workers critically compromised, there is no end in sight to our calvary, FNU said.’” — Philstar Global

Examples of cavalry

  • “The Mongols began as an extraordinarily effective cavalry, wielding bows and arrows from horses and overwhelming opponents.” — Discover Magazine
  • “With a few exceptions — the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the battle of Falluja in 2004 — the tank has become as irrelevant to modern warfare as the horse cavalry it replaced.” — The New York Times
  • “Elliott, a native of Hendersonville, said he was drafted in 1966, and was in a field artillery unit in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.” — The Washington Post

Additional reading for calvary vs. cavalry

If you enjoy learning about tricky spellings or interesting word histories, we think you’ll enjoy the following grammar lessons by The Word Counter

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between calvary and cavalry with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false?: the words “calvary” and “cavalry” contain the same seven letters.
    a. True
    b. False
  2. In formal contexts, the English word Calvary can reference ___________.
    a. Intense mental suffering
    b. A life-size representation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ
    c. The location of Christ’s crucifixion 
    d. B and C
  3. Which of the following is not representative of a cavalry?
    a. Tank troops
    b. Military units with high mobility
    c. Horse armor
    d. Mounted knights 
  4. What is the correct pronunciation of cavalry?
    a. ka-vel-ree
    b. ka-vil-ree
    c. kah-vel-ree
    d. kal-ve-ree
  5. What is the correct pronunciation of calvary?
    a. ka-vil-ree
    b. ka-vel-ree
    c. kal-ve-ree
    d. None of the above

Answers

  1. A
  2. D
  3. C
  4. A
  5. C

Sources

  1. Cabico, G. K. “ECQ more suffering than solution for health workers, public — nurses’ group.” Philstar Global, philstar.com, 31 Mar 2021.
  2. Cashman, G. F. “Is the Ivory Coast moving its embassy to Jerusalem?The Jerusalem Post, jpost.com, 18 Dec 2018.
  3. Cavalry.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  4. Cavalry.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  5. Calvary.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2021.
  6. Calvary.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  7. Garner, B. “Calvary; cavalry.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 138.  
  8. Logan, E. “Justin Bieber Is Selling His Own Religious Painting on Instagram.” W Magazine, wmagazine.com, 30 Dec 2017.
  9. Metathesis.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  10. Noe, B. A. “Walking Above Jerusalem.” National Geographic, nationalgeographic.com, 6 Oct 2011.
  11. San Martín, I. “Victim ignored by bishop today pushes Mexican Church on reform.” Crux, cruxnow, 2 Dec 2019.
  12. Scharping, N. “The Life Of Genghis Khan, The Ruthless Warlord Who Created The World’s Largest Empire.” Discover Magazine, discovermagazine.com, 17 Oct 2020.
  13. Woods, E. D. “Why Trump Likes Tanks.” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 4 July 2019.