Where does the expression “to eat a horse” come from? It means that we are so hungry that we want to eat a very large amount of food, but why did we chose a horse and not a cow, which is an animal that humans DO consume very often, as opposed to horse meat, which most people shun?
A google search didn’t turn up much information, surprisingly. The origin of the expression is not clear. After verifying several websites and even reading posts from professional translators debating the issue, I concluded that there is no clear and precise explanation available.
There are, however, quite a lot of different perspectives as to which definition and origin it has, and many make good sense. The most popular one, and the one that I have always believed it to be, is that the quantity of meat on a horse is so substantial that it describes one’s immense hunger. But, there are many points made that contradict this meaning as being the true, original one. First, if it had to do with size, then an emphasis word, such as “I’m so hungry I could eat the ENTIRE horse” would surely have been added. The lack of this type of word makes it seem as though there is another meaning tied to the expression.
Then, there is the idea that English-speaking communities are not the ones known to eat horse traditionally; therefore, why would they choose this animal as opposed to a cow, which has much more meat? There are other cultures that do appreciate this sort of meat, but if the English truly did enjoy it, it would make sense that the quantity is the reason for this expression.
Some others point to the idea that horses eat a lot, but then again the expression “I could eat LIKE a horse” is usually the one used to imitate the fact that horses eat often and quite a lot at a time. Once again, this is not the most appropriate meaning behind this expression.
Finally, there are those that say that the idea of eating a horse could be a “last resort” type of situation, ie. that the idea of eating a horse is so repugnant that one needs to be incredibly hungry to consider tearing it apart to consume it. This is the one that seems to make the most sense since the cultures based on the English language are known to use horses as work and play animals or pets, and not for consumption (although you will hear of people who swear that horse meat is excellent). There is an old Ontario expression that says “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse and chase its rider”, which indicates being hungry up to the point of lunacy – and perhaps even considering eating the rider as well! Since horses have historically been the animal that humans need for large travels, this would definitely be a last resort – being out of food and so hungry that you can no longer endure it and are considering killing your horse for food.
**Please note that I am vegan and would never consider eating a horse… or a cow, or a pig, or a chicken. I don’t even touch a bee’s honey!
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