The Origins of 12 Horse-Related Idioms

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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.
 

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

Game of Thrones Fans Have Been Mispronouncing Khaleesi

HBO
HBO

While Game of Thrones fans are busy poring over every still image and official trailer released for the show's final season in the hope of noticing some tiny detail that might hint at what's to come, David Peterson—the linguist who creates the series' fictional languages—dropped a huge piece of information: we've all been mispronouncing  Khaleesi.

While being interviewed for The Allusionist podcast, Peterson described the rampant mispronunciation as "a real thorn in my side." So just how should we be saying the Dothraki word?

"I wanted to make sure if something was spelled differently, it was pronounced differently," Peterson explained of his process of transforming the handful of Dothraki words George R.R. Martin had created into a full language. "That worked pretty well for everything except the word Khaleesi ... There's no way it should be pronounced 'ka-LEE-see' based on the spelling. So I had to decide, 'Am I going to respell this thing because I know how people are going to pronounce this, or am I going to honor that spelling and pronounce it differently?' I made the latter decision and I think it was the wrong decision."

(That said, in his book Living Language Dothraki, Peterson writes that "many Dothraki words have multiple pronunciation variants, often depending on whether the speaker is native or non-native. Khaleesi, for example, has three separate pronunciations: khal-eh-si, khal-ee-si, and kal-ee-si," which at a later point in the book spelled is "ka-lee-si.")

Given that Daenerys Targaryen has a mouthful of other titles at her disposal, we'll just call her the Mother of Dragons from now on.

Game of Thrones returns for its final season on April 14, 2019.

[h/t: Digital Spy]

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