The Origins of 12 Horse-Related Idioms

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Horses own the winner’s circle in English idioms. But where did these popular phrases originate?

1. Hold your horses!

When It Originated: 800 BCE

A line in Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad is commonly translated as “Antilochus—you drive like a maniac! Hold your horses!” (Although the original 1598 translation has it as “Contain thy horses!”)

2. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

When It Originated: 380 BCE

This idiom is so old that when St. Jerome translated the New Testament, he included it in the introduction: “Equi donati dentes non inspicuintur.”

3. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink

When It Originated: 1175

One of the oldest aphorisms in English, this adage was first recorded in the Old English Homilies: “Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken.” A modern version appeared in the 1602 play Narcissus: “They can but bringe horse to the water brinke / But horse may choose whether that horse will drinke.”

4. Horseplay

When It Originated: 1580s

In the 16th century, “horse” was a common adjective describing anything strong, big, or coarse. Along with horseplay, that’s how horseradish got its name.

5. A horse of a different color

When It Originated: 1600s

In Act II, Scene 3 of Twelfth Night, Maria says, “My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour.” It’s believed the phrase evolved from there or that the idiom already existed and Shakespeare was twisting it.

6. Beat a dead horse

When It Originated: 1640s

In the 17th century, sailors were paid in advance and promptly blew their checks on booze. The ensuing period of work was called “dead horse” time. Since they didn’t have the promise of a paycheck for motivation, most sea dogs were woefully unproductive.

7. Eat Like a Horse

When It Originated: 18th Century

A full-grown gelding can eat up to 2 percent of its body weight per day—that’s about 20 pounds of food!

8. Get off your high horse

When It Originated: 1780s

Being told you were on a high horse used to be a compliment: Only soldiers and royalty rode tall war chargers. Then, as people lost respect for the high and mighty during the revolutions of the late 1700s, the high horse was seen as uppity.

9. Dark horse

When It Originated: 1830s

Not a reference to the Katy Perry song, the word dark was Victorian era lingo describing anything unknown. “Dark horse” was popular racing slang for an unfamiliar trotter that won a race.

10. One Horse Town

When It Originated: 1850s

Settled in 1849, the village of One Horse Town in Shasta County, California, was a regular stop for gold miners. Legend has it that Jack Spencer’s ole gray mare was the only horse around.

11. Charley horse

When It Originated: 1850s

Back in the 19th century, lame race-horses were called “Charley.” Around the same time, old horses were used to drag the infield dirt at baseball stadiums. Whenever a ballplayer cramped up, they were compared to the grounds crew of limping equines—Charley horses.

12. Chomp/champ at the bit

When It Originated: 1920s

Part of the bridle, a bit rests inside the horse’s mouth and is controlled by the reins. Impatient horses tend to anxiously chew on their bits before races.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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May 22, 2014 - 11:00am
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