Horses And The History of The English Language

Ahead of Royal Ascot next week, it is time for a bit of a canter through the history of the English language and in particular to a number of proverbs and phrases in language which have an equestrian derivation. As a nation we have always had a close affinity to horses, from the days when they were our only mode of transport and a vital part of farming and food production to the present day where there are over four million horse riders in an industry that is worth over £2 billion.

The following are just a few of the phrases which are part of the history of the English language and we still use today.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

An oft-used phrase meaning that you should not be critical of something that you’ve been given for free or very little cost. You should simply accept it and show appreciation. So when you look a gift horse in the mouth, it’s like checking the box for the IPhone you have been given to see if it is the very latest version.

Its literal meaning refers to the age of a horse which can be roughly calculated by looking at its teeth. As a horse ages it will develop new teeth and its existing teeth start to change shape and angle more forward.

We first encounter the phrase in 1546 within John Heywood’s tome ‘A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue’  as “don’t look a given horse in the mouth”,.

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It is believed that Heywood took the phrase from a Latin text of St. Jerome, The Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400, which contains the text ‘Noli equi dentes inspicere donati’ (Never inspect the teeth of a given horse).

From the horse’s mouth

Another reference to a horse’s mouth, but this time the proverb refers to information that you have received direct from the source and is therefore totally accurate. Again we are back to horses age and their teeth as this is a phrase from the 1800’s where horses were the main form of transportation and horse dealers had a reputation rather like some more unscrupulous used car salesmen.

The dealer may make false claims about a horse for sale, but if you wanted a truthful idea of the age of the animal you could get it straight from the horse’s mouth, i.e.: by opening its mouth and inspecting the teeth.

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

This is probably the oldest proverb still in use in the English language and was recorded as early as 1175 in Old English Homilies:

Hwa is thet mei thet hor

s wettrien the him self nule drinken 

And has been in continuous use since then, basically it means that you can give someone good advice, but you cannot make them take it.

In the 20th century Dorothy Parker reworked it from its proverbial form into the epigram ‘you can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think’. However, the least said about that, the better!

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Don’t change horses in midstream

Our last proverb refers to the fact that you should not change your position or leader when you are part-way through a campaign or project. The phrase comes from an 1864 speech by Abraham Lincoln, in reply to Delegation from the National Union League who were urging him to be their presidential candidate. ‘An old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that it was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.”

So as you can see horses still play a key part in the rich tapestry which is the history of the English language.