Q&A: Hold your horses

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are just horsing around.

Q: Hi AWC, with it being horse racing season, can you explain the origin of the phrase “hold your horses”?

A: Well, the literal phrase is an old one – as old as the Iliad – Homer’s ancient Greek poem from around 800BC. It meant to, well, slow your horses or make them wait.

Q: So how did it come to mean more general non-horsey things?

A: That wasn’t until 1840s USA, when to “hold your hosses” meant to wait.

Q: Hosses?

A: Yep. It was slang for “horses”.

Q: Of coss it was.

A: Fun fact – it took almost a century (1939) before the actual spelling “hold your horses” was used. For example, “Hold your horses, we haven’t finished counting the votes yet.”

Q: My uncle Darren thought it had to do with those gates at the start of a horse race that physically hold the horses.

A: Nope. Is your uncle still racing?

Q: No, he had to retire. He used to get bad skin rashes and would have to pull out just before races.

A: Late scratching?

Q: No, at all times of the day. Lotion helped.

A: Um, okay. So, is that all today?

Q: Well, while we’re talking about horse phrases, what about the one that says you’re up “on your high horse”?

A: Well today this means that you’re “above it all” and looking down on everyone, hence where “get down off your high horse” also comes from. It’s fairly literal, in that it related to soldiers or nobility sitting atop their high horses – debuting as a phrase during the late 1700s.

Q: So no one liked the soldiers then?

A: Well, curiously, it originally was a compliment but when people started revolting against those in power, it actually lost all respect – instead taking on the snobbish tones of today.

Q: What a revolting story.

A: Haha, yes.

Q: Do you have any other horse-related phrases you can enlighten me with?

A: Well, there are a surprising number of them – some which we have looked at before, like “champing at the bit” or “free rein”.

Q: Ah yep.

A: But here’s one that people might not think comes from horse racing – it’s when you win something “hands down”.

Q: Oh, because horses are measured in hands?

A: No, not quite. It dates from 1855, and it’s when a jockey will let their hands go loose in the reins when they know that victory is certain. They put their “hands down” and win.

Q: I like my version better. Put enough hands down and you’ll get up on your high horse.

A: That’s not a thing.

Q: Okay fine. Any others?

A: The phrase “to get one’s goat” means to annoy someone. And it comes from the early 20th century, when goats were often kept in stables with racehorses, kind of as their mascot or support animal.

Q: How odd.

A: Yep. So, if you wanted to affect a rival’s chances of winning a race, you would steal their goat – upsetting the horse to the point that it wouldn’t race well. These days of course, it can be something – not just someone – that “gets your goat” and irritates you.

Q: Funnily enough, my uncle Darren ended up farming goats after he retired from jockeying. He’d been itching to try something new, even though most thought it was a rash decision.

A: Uh huh.

Q: One last one. What about “straight from the horse’s mouth”?

A: Well, this is also from the early 20th century and was all about getting tips on which horse would win a race. If you had some inside information from people close to the horse or stables, that was highly valuable. In fact, the only thing better would be if the tip had come “straight from the horse’s mouth”!

Q: Ah got it.

A: According to records, the earliest printed version of the phrase was in 1913 USA – “I got a tip yesterday, and if it wasn’t straight from the horse’s mouth, it was jolly well the next thing to it”.

Q: I miss the word “jolly”…

A: We’ve run out of horsepower this week, time to wrap this up.

Q: Yes, enough horsing around.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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