thinkstock
thinkstock

The Origins of 12 Horse-Related Idioms

thinkstock
thinkstock

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.
 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Images: iStock
arrow
Words
25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites
Images: iStock
Images: iStock

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Pop Culture
'Binge-watch' and More New Words Now Officially Recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary
iStock
iStock

Television series and movies are a pervasive part of our culture, and our collective obsession with Netflix and easily streamable content extends far beyond the screen. For proof, look no further than the Oxford English Dictionary, which just officially recognized “binge-watch” as a word, USA Today reports, along with more than 900 other words.

Defined as "to watch multiple episodes of (a television programme) consecutively or in rapid succession," binge-watch is just one of the new words added to the UK-based reference book. "Spoiler alert," defined as “a forewarning of a plot spoiler," is also one of the new entries.

A lot can be gleaned about our current cultural moment by looking at new additions to any dictionary. For instance, ongoing discussions surrounding gender, sexuality, and prejudice have prompted the Oxford English Dictionary to recognize the words “microaggression” (a statement or act regarded as prejudice), "misgender" (to refer to someone as a different gender than the one they identify with), and "pansexual" (someone who is attracted to people of all gender identities, beyond the binary identities of male and female).

Several words have also been added to recognize different orientations in respect to romantic (as opposed to sexual) attraction, including "biromantic," "heteroromantic," and "homoromantic." "One of the most conspicuous domains in which the vocabulary of English has expanded in recent decades is that of gender and sexuality," Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, told USA Today.

Other fun and notable new words include:

Beerfest
Bewhiskered
Broccoli rabe
Energy vampire
Facebook (as a verb)
Hip-hoppy
Impactful
Lab rat
Positive energy
Teenagery
Teensploitation
Untippable
Whataboutery
Yessir
Zenned-out
Zeus-like

To see the full list of new additions, you can visit the dictionary's website here.

[h/t USA Today]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios