Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

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?

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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“!

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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!

Why Do You “Lose Your Marbles”?

To “lose your marbles” means to go crazy. Once you lost your marbles, your sanity is far gone. But that seems like an odd association – what do marbles have to do with sanity?

There are a number of different possible origins of the phrase. But what was the first use? The meaning likely comes from the connection with a child losing his toys, such as his marbles, and not being happy about it. In 1886, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat published this sentence in an excellent summation of the connection of ideas: “He has roamed the block all morning like a boy who has lost his marbles.”

In the late 1800’s to “lose your marbles” meant getting angry. For a while “marbles” danced the line between meaning “anger” and “sanity”. One interesting note is that in the 1920’s, a person who had lost control had “let his marbles go with the monkey”, a phrase that came from a story about a boy whose marbles were taken by a monkey.

The meaning changed by the 20th century, however. In 1898 The Portsmouth Times published this line: “Prof. J. M. Davis, of Rio Grande college, was selected to present J. W. Jones as Gallia’s candidate, but got his marbles mixed and did as much for the institution of which he is the noted head as he did for his candidate.”

And in 1927, American Speech sealed the deal by defining losing your marbles as “Marbles, doesn’t have all his (verb phrase), mentally deficient.”

 

Sources:

Phrases.org

Idiomation

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen

You’ve heard the phrase before – “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” But did you know that we have a former U.S. President to thank for it?

The more obvious source of the phrase says that a kitchen with a hot stove and a hot oven will overheat. Only those prepared to withstand the heat will keep working in the kitchen.

Harry S. Truman used the phrase even before he became president.

Truman took that reasoning to heart and used the saying quite often. When he was a senator he found his favorite saying being written into a newspaper article:

“Favorite rejoinder of Harry S. Truman when a member of his war contracts investigating committee objects to his strenuous pace: ‘If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

President Truman on opening day of baseball season.

President Truman on opening day of baseball season.

His achievement of the position of president, of course, significantly increased awareness of the phrase. (Some suggest that it was actually Truman’s military adviser General Harry Vaughn who created it.)

Truman is also said to have created the phrase “pass the buck”.

It’s not surprising that Truman, known for his frank way of talking, spread this popular phrase to the public.