From Trojan horses to currying favour, everyday expressions are laced with references to the part horses played throughout our culture and history. Author Adam Jacot de Boinod traces the origins of some popular idioms
“Dark horse”, “stalking horse” and “horseplay”… the English language is rich with equestrian idioms. Animals, of course, have long been a deep well of examples from which we draw to make helpful comparisons and precise references. They perform many roles in our lives and perhaps none more so than the horse.
The horse is involved in everything from historic warfare to man’s “cavalier” status and medieval jousting, from agriculture to transport, not to mention the world of racing, so it comes as no surprise just how richly the horse has been put to linguistic use.
What’s so interesting, and sometimes truly eyebrow-raising, is the origin and true definition of these phrases and idioms.
It’s hard to go any earlier within the canon of European literature than Greek mythology, where the “Trojan horse” refers to an episode in which the Trojans dragged an abandoned wooden horse within their city gates. It was secretly full of Greek soldiers who at night then stole out of concealment, slew the guards and opened the gates to set fire to the city of Troy.
Indeed for centuries wars and battles were dependent on horses for their success. We have the expression “old war horse”, and horses naturally became something of a status symbol: a bit like a sports car today.
The phrase “my kingdom for a horse” is used typically to emphasise how important a usually insignificant item is at a given moment. It was coined by Shakespeare in Richard III and refers both to a king who might lose his kingdom from losing his horse and to the fact that something small outweighs a kingdom at that moment.
Social prowess introduced the phrases “to be on one’s high horse” or “to get off your high horse”. They are a 1380 reference to arrogance; those in command chose the biggest horses as a display of their power and, riding high above the crowds, they could appear to act as if they were better than those below.
Notions of “chivalry” developed in medieval times with lances and jousting bringing us “at full tilt”. It derives from the old English word “tealt” or “tylte”, meaning to totter unsteadily. Tilting is an early name for jousting where two knights charge at each other on horseback in an attempt to topple their opponent off his horse.
Expertise at riding also gave us “hell for leather” meaning “as fast as possible”. The phrase comes most likely from Rudyard Kipling and refers to a horseman riding fast by putting a lot of wear into his leather saddle, thus exchanging “hell for leather”.
The agricultural demand imposed on horses for pulling ploughs and so on are exemplified by phrases such as “to work like a horse” and the turning of them into a commodity is exemplified by the word “horse-trading”.
Clearly horses were key when it came to general transportation initially by riding: hence to “ride roughshod over someone”, which comes from the days when it was the norm to ride rough-shod horses in which the nail-heads of the horseshoes were left sticking out so that they could be ridden anywhere without slipping.
“To come a cropper” may derive from the hindquarters of a horse – the croup. When falling from a horse in the 18th century, you were said to have fallen “neck and crop”, meaning headlong or head over heels, while “don’t change horses in mid-stream” derives from Abraham Lincoln offering himself as a presidential candidate, in which he said, “An old Dutch farmer once remarked that it was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.”
Then came moving around by dint of a coach and horses, bringing us “cart before horse”, an analogy for doing things in the wrong order.
Stables had become commonplace, and shortly after the idiom “Hobson’s choice”, meaning a choice that is no choice at all and referring to a Mr Hobson, an innkeeper at Cambridge who had a stable of 40 horses. When someone came for a horse he was obliged to take the one nearest the stable door or go without one, so that every customer was served in equal fashion.
Next up was horse racing, bringing with it a plethora of terms including “dead heat”, “fall at the final hurdle” and “to flog a dead horse”. With this last phrase is the sense that nothing could be done if the horse were already dead and, likewise, if something has been decided, no amount of discussion could change it.
Betting inevitably brought out its own lingo with “turn-up for the book”, “back the wrong horse” and “straight from the horse’s mouth”: the last referring to hearing tips from those who have been in closest touch with the recent form of the horse.
Americans’ love of the sport coined many a phrase such as “across the board”, “Big Apple”, “go down to the wire” and “to spill the beans” – the latter expression arising in the early 1900s in the sense of disseminating information, though it dates back to Roman times, when people fed beans to horses to give them more energy. “Full of beans” has similar origins.
“Across the board” – meaning everything in an organisation – comes from a 1902 racing term in the US, denoting a bet in which equal amounts are staked on the same horse to come first, second, or third in a race; the board was the blackboard on which bookmakers chalked up their odds.
The Big Apple, New York City’s nickname, most likely derives from the 1920s, when the biggest purse for winning a race was called “the apple”; hence both jockeys and owners used “the Big Apple” for the city where the most lucrative prizes were awarded.
“Going to the wire” – used to refer to any tense situation where the outcome may well not be decided until the very end – comes from 1889 in American racing, where a wire was put up above the finishing line to assist in determining the winner before the days of cameras to indicate which nose had crossed the line first. Any race that was very close was described as going down to the wire.
A horse’s need for food is expressed with “to eat like a horse”, and “to bite the hand that feeds one” comes from the idea that horses, if you’re careless, may bite when you feed them by hand. As for “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”, it illustrates that people, like horses, will do as they will.
A horse’s character gives us “horseplay”. Coined in the 1580s, “horse” meant anything strong, big or coarse; so horseplay meant strong play (which is also the basis of the word horseradish).
Also “to curry favour” came with “curry” meaning to rub down or comb a horse while “favour” comes from the French “fauve” for tawny-coloured or wild; the sense being that the horse was susceptible to flattery, which figuratively is a form of stroking.
Last but not least are a horse’s physical properties, exemplified with the age-old maxim: “never look a gift horse in the mouth” meaning one should accept a gift as it
is given instead of trying to get something better. If someone was given a horse and tried to check its teeth and thereby its age, it meant that instead of being grateful for the present he was rudely trying to assess its value.
Other dental inspection comes with “long in the tooth” meaning someone old or aged. However poor we are at telling a horse’s age by its teeth, we all know they get longer as the years go by.
“Horses for courses” across many centuries indeed!
● Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the first BBC series of QI and is an author of three books including The Meaning of Tingo
Ref: Horse & Hound; 3 December 2020
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