Of Horse

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To Coin A Phrase ...
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To Coin A Phrase ...

I heard someone mention, "Shanks' Pony", the other day and wondered where the phrase originated. In fact, there are many phrases and proverbs in the English language which mention horses.

Shanks' Pony: This basically means to walk as in; "I'll have to go by Shanks' Pony."

There are two explanations as to its origins. Firstly, it is claimed that the phrase originated in Scotland in the eighteenth century. The term "shank" means shin bone or tibia and "Pony" (or more commonly, "Mare", in the US) is a late substitution for the original, "Nag".

The second suggestion as to the term's origin is that it derived from a company called Shanks & Company Ltd who manufactured lawn mowers during the 1800s. One such machine was horse-drawn and did not feature a seat so the operator had to walk behind it; hence the phrase "Shanks' Pony" came to mean walking as opposed to riding. It's thought that the first explanation is the more likely as it pre-dates the second.

Dark Horse: This refers to someone who suddenly emerges from obscurity to prominence.

This term originates in horse racing. The dark horse referred to was one that was unknown to punters at the track and was therefore difficult to place odds on. The dark horse then emerged from the pack to win unexpectedly. The phrase later spread to become commonly used in that context in other situations.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth: This proverb means; never examine a gift to determine its value.

As all horse owners know, the most accurate way to determine a horse's age is to examine his teeth. If someone were to give a horse as a gift, it would be incredibly rude to then check how old it was before deciding whether to accept it or not!

It's thought this proverb first appeared in common usage as early as the 1500s and its origins can be traced even further back to a Latin text; St Jerome's Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400 and translates as "Never inspect the teeth of a given horse".

Long in the tooth: This phrase basically means; old.

Again, this derives from the determination of a horse's age by examining its teeth. Horses' teeth grow longer as they become older; hence an elderly person could be described as "long in the tooth".

Straight from the horse's mouth: This phrase means information received from one who is extremely well informed.

This is another horse racing term. The most trusted source of information as regards the expected performance of a horse in a race would come from those most closely involved with its training and wellbeing, i.e. the trainer, stable lads etc. Clearly, the only one better informed as to the animal's likely performance would be the actual horse itself, hence "straight from the horse's mouth".

This is actually a 20th century phrase and originates in the US.

Get off your high horse: This is a request to someone to stop being so self-righteous and opinionated.

The first reference to high horses was a literal one. The horses in question were in fact the "great" horses used in Mediaeval England. Soldiers and political leaders appeared in public dressed in full military regalia and mounted on large and expensive horses to emphasise their standing and power. The image of being high up whilst mounted on a huge charger and thus able to look down upon the peasants and commoners coined the phrase.

The phrase became more figurative as time passed and nowadays is used more in mockery of those who consider themselves to be a cut above others and who need to "get over themselves" as we might say in modern parlance.

Of course there are many more horse related proverbs and sayings which to those "in the know" are self-explanatory so I've not included them in this article as I would just be "teaching grandma to suck eggs"! Given that many new words and phrases are being added to the dictionary annually, I wonder how long it will be before a brand new horse related proverb appears.

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  1. PonyGirl
    Interesting post. I read an article not too long ago listing all the modern, every- day phrases that originated from the racetrack. I was surprised at how many there were. I think all cultures have left over phrases from horse related things. In Mandarin Chinese, the word for "hurry" (mashang) is literally "horseback".
    1. autumnap
      Thank you. I expect there are loads more that don't actually mention "horse" at all but still derive from it. x

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