Ever encountered any burly henchmen? Tim Bowen explains how the meaning of this word has come a long way from its original association with horses.

“Surrounded by his henchmen the mafia boss strode into the restaurant”.

The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines henchman as “a supporter of a powerful person, especially one who is willing to behave in an immoral or violent way”. Gang leaders have henchmen, as do dictators, militia leaders and rogue politicians.

The word conjures up an image of burly men in suits and dark glasses lined up behind the person they are protecting. It does, however, have much humbler origins. It is derived from an old English word for male horse (or stallion) hengest which, when added to the word man appears to have meant a ‘horse servant’ or ‘groom’. So, originally, a henchman was simply someone who looked after your horses for you. These days a henchman is someone who supports you in your life of crime or violence.