The other night while surfing the movie channels I came across that 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz with its, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” and “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

But the line from the movie I remember most occurred when Dorothy and her friends were riding in a carriage through the Emerald City, and the guardian of the city’s gates, now turned carriage-driver said, “That’s a horse of a different color.”  When I first saw the movie at the tender age of five, I wasn’t sure what the phrase meant.  Nevertheless, I instinctively knew it had a special connotation, and I’ve been fascinated with English language idioms ever since.

Have you ever wondered who first said, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” or “Dressed to the nines,” or “Kick the bucket?”  What were the contexts, how did these phrases evolve?  There’s always a degree of uncertainty and mystery surrounding such expressions, with no one knowing their precise origin; nevertheless, its fun to explore their genesis.

The meanings of idioms aren’t always predictable because frequently there’s little linkage to their constituent elements, i.e. “At the drop of a hat” or “An axe to grind.”  Nonetheless, for today’s commentary I thought we might look at a few English expressions just for the fun of it, beginning with the “Horse of a different color.”  

The expression means “That’s an entirely different matter.”  And while no one can say with certitude, it’s widely believed this idiom was derived from a phrase coined in Shakespeare’s “The Twelfth Night” when he wrote “A horse of that color.”  Eventually though (as with many idioms) the phrase evolved to mean something different from its original intent.

Take the term “Dark Horse,” a racing term originally applied to a horse about which very little was known.  The allusion was not to the color of the horse, but rather to the fact that the public had been “kept in the dark” (another idiom) regarding its potential.  This metaphoric expression first appeared in a Benjamin Disraeli’s novel, “The Young Duke,” in 1831.  But soon the expression was applied to James K. Polk, the come-from-behind winner of the 1844 presidential election.  Today, it’s not unusual to hear the term “Dark horse” candidate.

And while we’re on the subject of “horses” where did the term “horse sense” come from?  We know it doesn’t refer to the intelligence of horses, rather it refers to someone having the ability to make sensible decisions, but when and where did it originate?  No one can definitively say, but it’s believed the term was first used in the early 19th century American West, where hard, shrewd bargaining when trading for a horse was a necessity.

Horse is also used in the compound noun, “horseplay,” which means, rough, coarse, or boisterous play, passing the bounds of propriety.  Again, the exact origin is uncertain, but according to Webster’s; it was used as far back as the early 1500s in England.  “Beating a dead horse” is another idiom making use of the word horse.  It was first spoken with its modern meaning by the British politician John Bright.  Bright was referring to the Reform Bill of 1867, which called for more democratic representation in Parliament, and about which Parliament was singularly apathetic.

Trying to rouse Parliament from its apathy on the issue, Bright said in a speech, that it would be like “…trying to flog a dead horse to make it pull a load.”  The term flogging was eventually replaced with “beating,” its Americanized version.

Another interesting phrase making use of the word “horse” is “Horse latitudes,” a region of calm about 30 degrees north and south of the Equator.  Many feel the region was so named from the sailing ships carrying horses to America and the West Indies that were sometimes obliged to jettison the animals when becalmed, and water had to be rationed for humans first.  However, another theory contends that the name derives from ‘dead horse,’ a nautical term for advance pay, which sailors expected to work off by the time they reached this region.

English may be the most dynamic language spoken in the 21st century and it would surely benefit most of us to study its usage as well as the etymology of individual words.  Did you know there are five times more words (excluding medical and scientific terms) in use today than there were during Shakespeare’s time?  Or that soon more people in China will speak English than in the United States?

As Oliver Wendell Holmes opined, “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run, and out of which they grow.”  English is our language, and as long as we’re using it, we may as well have some fun with it too.

Quote of the day; “More than any other measurable characteristic, knowledge of the exact meaning of a large number of words accompanies outstanding success”—Earl Nightingale

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