12 September 2012

Our Anachronistic Equine Vocabulary

There’s no Y in “linchpin.” Lots of people have taken to spelling the word with a Y in place of the first I because we hardly ever see linchpins. Those used to be very important because they held wheels onto the axles of wagons. I guess people are more used to seeing variations on the word “lynching.”

There’s no G in “free rein” or “tight rein” or “to rein in someone.” Those are metaphors derived from a horse’s reins, but people now seem to interpret them as related to a monarch’s reign and add the G. That’s what linguists have lately taken to calling eggcorns, attempts to make better sense of a word when folks don’t know its original derivation or context.

Those terms have become unfamiliar because they grew out of a horse-based economy. We no longer have the daily context to remind us of their original usage and meaning.

Similarly, people are now saying they’re “straddled with” problems instead of “saddled with” them because horse saddles are no longer part of our lives. People wonder what “riding roughshot” means because we no longer have to wonder about having a horse “roughshod”; that refers to horses shoed with the nailheads sticking out a little for extra traction, and I had to look it up myself. “Souped up” started as racing-track slang; now some people are using “suped up,” probably inspired by Superman.

Our language has lots of terms derived from the horse-based economy. Some are obvious (looking a gift horse in the mouth), others less so (long in the tooth), and some on their way out through obscurity (kick over the traces).

Those phrases survive like the traces of our physical equine infrastructure. In the center of my home town there’s a flower planter at the ideal height for a horse—because it was originally a fountain where drivers and riders could water their animals. But most of the unneeded parts of that infrastructure—small ponds, hitching-posts, stables, ferriers’ shops—have disappeared, swept away like manure from the streets.

As technological change has sped up, we’re probably making once-familiar phrases into anachronisms faster than ever. Kids today have never touched a telephone or television “dial.” A friend told me about having to explain to a college student what “drop a dime” meant. When I was a lad, an “E ticket” meant you could go on the very best rides at Disneyland; now it’s what I don’t bring to the airport. Soon people may be interpreting “champing at the bit” to refer to data.

TOMORROW: The carrot and the stick.

(Image above from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr stream.)


ilex said...

I enjoyed this tremendously. I grew up around horses and "old people" and understood all but one expression. My great aunt used to refer to "taking the stage", instead of a bus. I didn't realize it was short for stagecoach until I was a teen. Thanks for a great blog.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, and stagecoaches got their name because they ran in stages, or predetermined lengths of a journey. The word bus comes from “omnibus,” meaning a vehicle for everybody.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Pick up the receiver.

In those old box telephones the receiver would hang from a hook. You'd pick up the receiver and speak into the ... transmitter? When you were done you would hang up the receiver.

I saw those peculiar telephones in old movies, but didn't recognize the terminology origins - the receiver I used was roughly banana-shaped and was also a transmitter, and when I hung it up I didn't hang it anywhere, I put it in its cradle.

I wrote a series of poems in the 80s that starred telephones. Now, of course, the phones we use are very little like those I grew up with. And people take it for granted that the conversations will cut out - we rarely had reception problems when I was a kid.

J. L. Bell said...

I have a picture-book manuscript that involves a character tripping over a phone cord. Many of today's picture-book readers have never lived in a house with a phone cord! (Of course, I can change that to a recharger cord. For now.)

Recently I heard a story about a junior-high student using the old-fashioned phone on his teacher's desk (i.e., what people our age would call a phone) and not knowing how to end the call because he couldn't see an OFF button.

Yaroosboy said...

In response to the comment about the kid not knowing how to end a call on an old style telephone.
Technology is changing everything. How many times have you gone into a public restroom and held your hands under the faucet before realizing tens of seconds later that it has to be manually turned on?
This was a good article.

J. L. Bell said...

When I travel, through airports and hotels and people's homes, I'm amazed at the number of different ways we've invented to work sinks and showers. One might think that this is an area where we'd appreciate standardization, but no. Innovation rules! And we have to keep ourselves mentally alert at each stop, never assuming that this fixture works anything like the last.