Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Three weeks ago, California-connected American Pharoah outraced the field and the spellchecker to become the first horse in 37 years to capture the Triple Crown. His epic feats of legerdemain have inspired me to maintain my equine-imity by exploring how horses figure prominently in the figures of speech that canter – neigh, gallop! – through our English language.

I’m full of horse power and feeling my oats – champing (not chomping) at the bit and eager to give free rein to talking horse sense with you. So prick up your ears and listen to how often we compare people with horses – disk jockeys, coltish lasses with ponytails, dark horse candidates who are groomed to give the frontrunners and old war horses a run for their money and work horses who, although saddled with problems of galloping inflation, can’t wait to get back in harness at the old stamping (not stomping) ground.

Now, straight from the horse’s mouth, here’s a parade of horsey words and expressions stabled in our vocabulary. Learning the origins of these equine phrases will help you to see that English is really a horse of a different color, and not a mare’s nest:

  • A horse is “rough-shoed” when the nails of its shoes project, ensuring a more sure-footed progress but also damaging the ground over which it gallops. Thus, when we ruthlessly advance ourselves at other people’s expense, we ride roughshod over them.
  • Attendants groom and clean a horse’s coat with a curry comb. When we wish someone to think well of us, we curry favor.
  • In an oft-used cliché we compare a point in time to a bespurred rider mounted upon our backs and urging us on with sharp prodding. We leap forward on the spur of the moment.
  • Jockeys urge their horses on by whispering “shoo” and shooing them on. Thus, a horse or a person who is an easy winner is known as a shoo-in.
  • When a horse is so far ahead of the rest of the field that the outcome of the race is no longer in doubt, the jockey does not even have to lift the reins to urge his or her mount forward and wins hands down.
  • Icy balls can become packed on the hooves of horses when they are driven over soft winter snow or during spring thaws. As the footing becomes treacherous, the horses may fall, singly or in teams, producing a state of affairs that is all balled up.
  • High-strung race horses are sometimes given goats as stable mates to calm them, and the two animals can become inseparable companions. Unscrupulous gamblers have been known to steal the goat attached to a particular horse that they want to run poorly the next day. By getting someone’s goat, we today often affect someone’s performance.

In this column, I’ve tried to lead a horse to language and make you think. I’m trusting that you won’t look this gift horse in the mouth. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth is one of the oldest proverbs known to humankind, whinnying back at least 1,500 years. The age and health of a horse can be ascertained by examining the condition and number of its teeth. Although an animal may appear young and frisky, a close inspection may reveal that it is long in the tooth and ready for the glue factory. Still, it is considered bad manners to inspect the teeth of a horse that has been given you and, by extension, to inquire too closely into the cost or value of any gift.

If, on the other hoof, you are buying a horse from a trader, you are advised to determine its age and health by examining the teeth straight from the horse’s mouth, the precise source of this column.