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The Origins of 12 Neigh Sayings

(Image credit: Flickr user Martin Budden)

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

1. Hold your horses!

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*

380 BCE

(Image credit: Flickr user Lorenia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1850s

(Image credit: Flickr user Pete.r)

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

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

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.

(Image credit: Christopher Michel)

*Why shouldn’t I look a gift horse in the mouth? Looking a gift horse in the mouth is considered a faux pas because the best way to determine a horse’s age is to examine its teeth. Because a horse’s value depends on its age -young horses are more valuable than old mares- peeking at the choppers of one is akin to checking the price tag!

What should I look for if I’m going to do it anyway? Horses have baby teeth that erupt between the ages of eight days and eight months. By three, they sport their four center permanent teeth. You can identify permanent teeth because they are longer and darker in color than the baby teeth and do not have a well-defined “neck” connecting them to the gum. By the time a horse is five, permanent teeth will have filled in around the center teeth. Now the horse has a “full mouth.”

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The above article is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrain section of May 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!


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