The English language can be confusing. Certainly, many of our idioms have fallen behind the times. Hold the phones – What phones? Don’t have a cow! – Surely, I’ll pass. Where did these phrases come from and why have they stuck around despite their falling out with modern technology and culture?
On my morning walk I heard someone mention that they had “heard it straight from the horse’s mouth”. Well, unless his horse is Mr. Ed, it seems quite unlikely that the man and his horse had a chat over breakfast and coffee. Who’s to say the horse’s information would even be slightly reliable; or more reliable than say, hearing something straight from a person’s mouth?
The phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” has become an idiom. An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. What meaning do we deduct from this word cluster?
We take the phrase “straight from the horse’s mouth” to mean getting information from an authoritative or credible source. It might seemingly indicate that horses know best, however the phrase has an unexpected origin.
One possible origin comes from buying and selling horses back before the invention of the automobile. As a means of labor and transportation, horses were very valuable in American civilization. When buying a horse it was very important to obtain information about the animal’s health history and extenuating attributes, similarly to the way someone today would want to know the details about a car for purchase. Apparently an excellent way to gage a horse’s age is by looking at its teeth, literally getting the facts straight from the horse’s mouth despite seller chicanery. In one of my personal favorites, ‘Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye discloses to a man that the allegedly six year old horse he was sold actually turned out to be twelve. “It was twelve! It was tweeeelve!” he shouts during the iconic opening scenes as the town sings of “traditions, traditions“!
Another possible origin relates to horse racing. When betting on a horse, gamblers would put their money behind someone “in the know” who possessed that golden tidbit of information. How’d they bet on the winning horse? Why, they heard it straight from the horse’s mouth! The people who you’d imagine have the best conjectures about which horse might win are the trainers and stable boys. So, to say that it was heard straight from the horse’s mouth humorously suggests that someone is a step ahead of even the inner circle of stable boys, hearing it from the horse himself.
Though you’d never guess that’s where a phrase we use all the time and understand the meaning of comes from, it seems to have stuck through the decades. Though most of us don’t go around checking horses’ mouths to see if they’re a good purchase or spend our Sunday afternoons at the race track, you can be sure to trust it if you heard it from the horse’s mouth!