WILD WEST WORDS
with Chrysti the Wordsmith
Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
When we say we got a bit of news “straight from the horse’s mouth,” we mean that we consider the source of the information authoritative and reliable. This expression tempts us to find a story involving, say, a mythical talking equine whose every word is believable. But don’t seek one, because it doesn’t exist. Instead, look for a bit of old-fashioned horse-trading wisdom to support this American idiom, first attested in the 1920s.
Idioms often make oblique references to customs, observations, and even technologies that are antiquated or obscure. For example, not everyone knows that a horse’s age and general health can be ascertained by looking at its teeth — the longer the tooth, the older the animal. This is implied in the expression “straight from the horse’s mouth.” A horse trader might lie about the age of the animal he sells you, but the horse’s mouth will reveal the truth.
Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail
Not heard so often these days, “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail” meaning “right away, quickly,” is something of a linguistic artifact of our agrarian past. But those who still raise sheep or live near them can fully appreciate the veracity of this expression.
Lambs, every single one of them, vigorously wag and shake their tails while nursing. When lambs bury their heads in mama’s wooly flanks, their caudal appendages nearly blur with enthusiasm. Literally, anything that can occur while a lamb’s tail shakes twice will do so instantly.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s word watchers have traced the expression to 1858, when it appeared in the form “a couple of shakes of a sheep’s tail.” Mark Twain used “three shakes of a sheep’s tail” in his 1884 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “A whisk of a lamb’s tail” was a variation recorded in 1901.
Throughout the 1900s, American English speakers dropped the ovine reference, resulting in such abbreviations as “half a shake,” “a couple of shakes,” “a brace of shakes,” and “wait a shake.”
“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” is a proverb meaning “it’s impossible to fashion something of quality with inappropriate raw material.” While much of a hog carcass can be rendered useful, a sow’s ear can never be processed to resemble anything as delicate as a silk purse. The publication of the modern version of this proverb has been attributed to author Jonathan Swift, but variations of the phrase have been around since the 1500s.
Of more recent vintage is the idiom “live high on the hog,” which originated in the American South in the 19th century. The expression means to prosper and to spend money freely. It relies on the notion that the expensive cuts of pork, such as the loin, roast and ham are taken from “high” on the hog carcass, while the lower part of the animal yields the cheaper cuts, such as the hock, the feet, and the jowl.