Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Equine Lexicon

(A brief essay on the influence of the horse in our language, which I began writing in 2005 when we did our first Art Horse fundraiser, and published on the Horsin' Around Rivendell pages of my website.  I have added to it every so often.)

Our culture’s relationship with the horse has given us many colorful words and phrases. These come from the horse itself as well as the gear and activities associated with the horse.

We refer to young girls as fillies (female foals), virile men as stallions or studs (male horses), a person who constantly harangues is called a nag (an old and worthless horse), and little girls and aging hippies wear their hair in pony tails. We indulge in horseplay when we are having too much fun. This is also called horsing around.   When a person behaves in an arrogant, haughty or disdainful fashion we say he is on his high horse.    When we can't seem to let go of an untenable notion it is known by the rather unsavory phrase beating a dead horse.

Over a hundred years since the invention of the automobile we name our cars after the horse. There are the Mustang, the Colt, the Charger , the Bronco and the infamous Pinto. Our car’s engines are rated by horsepower. When the automobile was first introduced it was called the horseless carriage and streetcars pulled by horses were called horse-cars. Our fascination with the power and mystery of the horse can be seen every day when we see car commercials on TV. Count the number of horses you see in one day’s worth of car commercials!

Another term for common sense is horse sense. Certain dancers have been called hoofers and when we decide to walk instead of drive, we are hoofing it. When we watch the Olympics we view gymnasts performing amazing feats on the pommel horse. The pommel is a part of a horse’s saddle. When we cut wood we use a saw horse. The term riding roughshod means to treat harshly and originates in a horse that has been shod with projecting nails (kinda like golf cleats).

A person with a long face, a lantern jaw and large teeth is derogatorily called horse-face. A person who is said to be very fond of his or her apparel is called a clothes horse.   Nonsense and silliness has been called horse feathers (think of the Marx Brothers). A slang term for a baseball is a horse hide, even though baseballs were never made from horse hide. A loud coarse laugh is called a horse laugh. Movies, TV shows and plays with a Wild West theme are called horse operas. A horse shoe is not just that piece of metal nailed to a horse’s hoof it also refers to anything that is U-shaped, including our own Horseshoe Falls.  When we go to the circus it is often held in a place called a hippodrome.  This comes from the ancient Greek and combines hippo (horse) and drome (race course).  The ancients held chariot races in hippodromes.

Speaking of race courses, a lot of words and phrases in our language come from the race track.  When we start an new project with a great flourish, we say we are off to the races.  A project in its infancy is just out of the starting gate.  When this project is going well, it is on track.  When we uphold the losing side, we have backed the wrong horse.  And when things get out of control we say it's anybody's horse race from here!

A shrewdly conducted bargain is still called a horse trade, to pony up means to settle an account, and a dark horse is not only a horse that comes out of nowhere to win a race but also a political candidate unexpectedly nominated.  When a person falls (or is thrown) from a horse there is much urging to get back on the horse  - that same phrase is used to encourage someone to overcome fear or doubt.  Riders often need a boost to mount a horse - this is the origin of the phrase leg up. The military even today uses the word dismount to describe getting out of a vehicle, a clear throwback to cavalry.  Also, the word cavalcade originally meant a procession of persons riding on horses.  When we promise to keep a secret we claim that wild horses couldn't drag it out of us.  When precautions are taken after a problem has occurred we refer to this as shutting the barn door after the horse has gone. When me mix up our priorities during a project this is commonly known as putting the cart before the horse.  In the four years that we presented Horsin' Around Rivendell, we accumulated a stable of artists.

A horse is controlled by its bridle and the attached reins. A laneway wide enough to accommodate a horse was called a bridle path.  In many subdivisions today there are streets called The Bridle Path which have never seen a horse!   We refer to unbridled passions or enthusiasm; we rein in our emotions or our spending.  We also use the term free rein to mean letting someone do what he pleases. The metal mouthpiece of the bridle is called a bit which curbs or restrains the horse.  A curb is also a type of bit, hence phrases like curb your enthusiasm.  When we say the phrase taking the bit in one's teeth, we mean casting off control.  When we say champing at the bit it means to betray impatience.   A rider sometimes wears spurs on his boots to urge the horse along.  We still use the phrase spurred on to indicate that we are being goaded into action.

The rider sits in the saddle and we often refer to being saddled with burdens or debt.  A person who is in the saddle is a person in a position of authority.  When we return to working after an absence, we say we are back in the saddle. Saddle shoes are oxfords with a band of a contrasting color across the instep.  For a horse to carry items, saddle bags are used (think Pony Express mail carriers).  Women with, ahem, hefty thighs sometimes refer to this extra "baggage" as saddle bags!  When some niggling little thing keeps bothering the heck out of you it is frequently referred to as a burr under your saddle

 Sometimes when we work too many hours we complain that we have been in harness too long.  A person overly attached to the notion of working is often called a work horse.  Another way of telling someone to leave well enough alone is to use the phrase don't switch horses in midstream.  You can imagine the problems that would arise from such an effort.

Words like corral, lasso and round-up all come from our Old West heritage. These words are frequently used to mean gather.
Horse of a different color has come to mean something that is entirely different. When we wish to restrain wild impulses we say hold your horses. When we receive news from a trustworthy source we say we have gotten it straight from the horse’s mouthHot to trot means ready and eager, as does feeling one's oats.  A person who falls into a rage is said to be up on his hind legs, like a rearing horse.

A time-honored method of determining the age of a horse is to look into its mouth. The length and condition of the teeth reveal the age. Hence the phrase looking a gift horse in the mouth, meaning to question a gift. Not a good thing!  Carriage horses work long hours and are given food in nosebags or feedbags.  Hence, putting on the feedbag means to have a meal.
I will continue to add horse words as I think of them, but for now, I do not want to give anyone a nightmare so I will stop.  Well, how about one little Night Mare?

Night Mare, one of the first Art Horses I did for Horsin' Around Rivendell, 2005.