Language inspired by horse, of course, of course

Barry Wood

The dog is considered "man's best friend" and "Cats" was the longest-running show in Broadway history, but the horse was probably the most important nonhuman mammal in the early development of our country.

Its role in the service of humankind is reflected in our language. For starters, its capacity for work is preserved in the term "horsepower," which is still used as the basic unit for measuring the oomph of engines and motors.

In another bow to the admirable qualities of the animal, a person or device that's steady, dependable and durable is called a "workhorse."

We've also created specialized pieces of apparatus to help us with chores, including the "sawhorse" and the "clotheshorse," although the latter is probably more familiar as a slang term for "a person who pays too much attention to clothes and new fashions."

Before the invention and mass production of motorized machinery, much depended upon the acquisition of a good horse. We still use the term "horse trade" for a "bargaining session marked by shrewd calculation by each side."

To call a man a horse is to suggest that he has great strength or endurance, but calling a woman a horse is not a compliment. It's also less than desirable to be seen as having a "horse laugh" or to be "on one's high horse," an informal phrase for "acting in an arrogant, haughty or disdainful manner."

The horse is also credited with good judgment. Not only can't one be made to drink after being led to water, but its perceived practical nature is trumpeted in the term "horse sense," synonymous with "common sense," which isn't as common as it ought to be.

In fact, nonsense is pretty common, too, and there are equine terms for that, including the slang "horsefeathers" (which was a perfect title for a Marx Brothers film) and a vulgar one I'll not repeat here. (In a "M-A-S-H" episode, Col. Sherman Potter translated it to "horse hockey.")

Speaking of hockey, horses have their playful side as well. Spending time "in pointless or trifling activity" is known by the slang term "horsing around." Similarly, "rough, boisterous fun" is called "horseplay."

In the drug culture, "horse" is slang for heroin. That's horseplay that's deadly serious.

In more organized recreation, we pitch "horseshoes," perform gymnastics on a "pommel horse," play "horse" on the basketball court, and pitch, hit and catch the old "horsehide" on the baseball diamond. And when I was young, westerns, also known as "horse operas," were all the rage on television and at the movies.

Horse racing also has a long tradition in this country. Other kinds of contests, including political ones, are sometimes referred to as horse races, and every once in a while a "dark horse" will emerge.

"Playing the ponies" is a related pastime for wagering types. But if you "back the wrong horse," be prepared to "pony up."

Of course, the old gray mare ain't what she used to be, and "horse-and-buggy" has become a modifier for "old-fashioned" and "outmoded." But maybe that's a "horse of a different color."

Now "hold your horses," I'm coming to the end -- and you're getting that straight "from the horse's mouth."

I wouldn't want to be accused of -- you guessed it -- "beating a dead horse."

Barry Wood is a senior copy editor for the Register Star. Contact him at or write to Wood on Words, Rockford Register Star, 99 E. State St., Rockford, IL 61104.