Horsing About

Since today sees the first day of this year’s Royal Ascot, I thought some interesting little horse-related word stories were in order. Oddly enough, English boasts a real plethora of horsey idioms. Even the OED’s entry for horse seems to be about three feet long. Most of these idioms are fairly transparent:

  • A one horse town – a small town where very little happens
  • To beat/flog a dead horse – to insist on talking about something that no one is interested in, or that has already been thoroughly discussed
  • To close the stable door after the horse has bolted – trying to stop something bad happening when it has already happened
  • Don’t put the cart before the horse – do not do things in the wrong order
  • Hold your horses! – wait!
  • I could eat a horse (and chase its rider) – to be very hungry.

But two of the more interesting idioms I’ve stumbled across both deal specifically with horses’ mouths: straight from the horse’s mouth, found from 1928, and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, first recorded in 1546. Why is a horse’s mouth so important? While any horse riding fanatics will probably already know this, the rest of us are left in the dark. The answer is that the condition and length of a horse’s teeth – since they grow in a very specific rate – can tell those in the know about the health and age of a horse.

So, straight from the horse’s mouth, meaning ‘to hear something directly from the person concerned and not garbled by an intermediary’, doesn’t mean that the horse is doing any speaking but that if you want to buy a horse, you should look directly at the horses teeth and not consider whatever the seller is telling you. That way the knowledge you have of the horse is sure to be correct; it comes from a good source.

On the other hand, if you are being given a horse as a gift you should not look at the condition of its teeth as this would suggest you’re distrusting or ungrateful. For that reason, you should not look a gift horse in the mouth because that would mean ‘to find fault with a gift, to spoil an offer by inquiring too closely into it’.

As for this week’s races, hopefully I’ll be backing a stone-blinder (sure winner).

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