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Horseplay: horses in idioms and proverbs

Horseplay: horses in idioms and proverbs

Horses have been in the news recently and, as with anything topical and a little bit scandalous, would-be comedians have been riffing on horse-related puns and quips to their hearts’ content. The English language is not new to this sort of play with the word ‘horse’. Horseplay, if you will – which is a case in point. That unassuming quadruped has reared its head in many expressions and sayings over time; here is just a selection of examples.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

It might not be your first instinct, when ripping the bow off your birthday horse, to stare into its mouth – more immediate actions might include renting a paddock or calling the police – but, either way, you shouldn’t take a look. A prospective purchaser would often check out a horse’s teeth, to ascertain its age. Inspecting the quality of a gift (equine or otherwise) is, of course, a sign of ingratitude – hence the exhortation not to do it.

From the horse’s mouth

It seems we’re obsessed with horses’ mouths, doesn’t it? In this case, the teeth aren’t relevant. The most trusted authorities in horse racing, useful when researching bets, are those who work with the horses – people working in the stables, for example. And who could be closer to the horse than the horse itself? If only they could talk. . .

You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink

I’ve never tried it myself, but I’m willing to believe whoever created this proverb, which suggests that it is impossible to make someone do something unless they are willing. It appears in the collected proverbs of John Heywood (1546), which helped popularize a number of famous sayings, from ‘I know on which side my bread is buttered’ to ‘Beggars should be no choosers’. And horses made another appearance – he also advised ‘that some man may steal a horse [is] better than [that] some other may stand and look upon.’ That proverb hasn’t proved so popular. . .

Don’t change horses in midstream

If you have gone to the trouble of taking your horse to the water, you’d be ill-advised to try and hop on another one when you’re in the water. That’s the gist of this expression, often attributed to an 1864 speech by Abraham Lincoln, which warns against changing plans in the middle of a project.

A couple of more unusual examples

The horse that was foaled of an acorn

It sounds like the beginning of a children’s story, but this euphemism is rather darker than that. The ‘horse’ in question is actually the scaffold – so if you were threatened with a ride on this horse, it would have been the last ride you’d ever take. Not so charming now, is it?

To run before one’s horse to market

This crops up in the first act of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and is the equivalent of the more recognisable expression ‘don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched’ – that is, don’t rely upon results before something is finished. In Shakespeare’s case, Gloucester is plotting to marry the widow of a man he’s yet to have murdered… with that precedent, perhaps it’s an expression best avoided in polite company.

And in other languages

Ce n’est pas la mort du petit cheval

In French, you might hear someone say ‘ce n’est pas la mort du petit cheval’, which translates as ‘this is not the death of the little horse’. Although this phrase is almost always true (unless one happens to find oneself at the funeral of a Shetland pony), it might rather baffle the casual listener. In fact, it is the equivalent of the English expression ‘it isn’t the end of the world’, oddly enough.

Ar gefn ei geffyl gwyn

You don’t even have to cross the Channel to get confused by horse idioms. In Welsh, ‘ar gefn ei geffyl gwyn’ translates as ‘on the back of his white horse’, but, rather than the knightly connotations which a white horse often suggests, the phrase is used to mean ‘full of mischief’.

La superbia va a cavallo e torna a piedi

Horses find their way into Italian proverbs too. Where an English-speaker might say ‘pride goes before a fall’ (quoting – or, in fact, misquoting – the Bible), an Italian would declare that ‘la superbia va a cavallo e torna a piedi’ – which is to say, ‘pride rides a horse and walks back’. More succinctly, the English exclamation ‘that’ll be the day!’ has the approximate Italian equivalent ‘campa cavallo!’ That literally means ‘the horse lives’, which just goes to show how curious idioms can sound outside of their cultural context. I should know, I recently tried to explain ‘Bob’s your uncle’ to a Polish friend, and quickly got stuck.

So, horses may have been in the news recently, but they’ve never been very far away from the public consciousness. As people’s lives and livelihoods have depended on horses over the centuries, so our language has been influenced by the nature and habits of our equine friends. And, who knows, recent events might bring a new idiom to our language. Certain people, at least, have learnt the dangers of flogging a dead horse.

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