Q From Mick Sandham: This one has been worrying me for a long while — ever since I was asked and didn’t know the answer. So why do we call a game between two local sides a Derby? I presume it has nothing to do with the name of the horse race which was named after Lord Derby.
A Actually, it does. That race, first run in 1780, was named after Edward Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby (its proper name is the Derby Stakes, universally abbreviated, and always said as though it were spelt Darby). It soon became established as the high point of the racing season as part of the meeting at Epsom in Surrey in early June. Disraeli once famously described it as “the Blue Ribbon of the Turf”. It became so important that other classic races were named after it, such as the Kentucky Derby.
Derby day, the day of the race — always a Wednesday until very recently — became a hugely popular event, not just for the toffs but as a big day out for all Londoners, a public holiday in all but name. Great numbers of people drove or took the train down to Epsom, making a day of it with picnics and lots to drink. In 1906 George R Sims wrote: “With the arrival of Derby Day we have touched the greatest day of all in London; it may almost be said to be the Londoners’ greatest holiday — their outing or saturnalia”. (Fashions change: this is no longer so, which is why the race moved in 1995 to a Saturday.)
At about the time George Sims was writing, the word moved into more general use to describe any highly popular and well-attended event. In particular, it came to be applied to a fixture between two local sides, first called a local Derby and then abbreviated. (In Britain we’ve tended to keep the full form, to avoid confusion with the Derby itself.)