Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dark Horse

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 20, 2011

A dark horse is someone or something whose abilities, plans, or feelings are little known to others.  So when Nickleback‘s sixth album, released in 2008, was named “Dark Horse” fans were eager to hear just how much of a dark horse the band was.  In some ways it disappointed as it delivered  simple chord progression riff-driven, songs and power ballads reminiscent of previous releases.  In fact, one reviewer from CD Universe wrote:

Nickleback’s rock is packaged prettily enough for soccer moms, a truth evident in accessible ballads like “I’d Come for You.”

During the Depression era, a Stork Derby — established by Charles Millar at his death — was held with the deadline date coming up quickly in 1936.  The finish line was November 1 and the woman who had given birth to the greatest number of children who were still living stood to win $500,000 — an unbelievable fortune at that time.  The Spokane Review published a story on October 31, 1936 that announced an eighth mother had made a surprise last-minute entry into the race with a claim of having borne 9 children in the 10 year window as outlined in the contest rules.  The headline read:

Dark Horse Gets Into Baby Dash: Six Now Tied, But 2 Have Chance To Win By A Diaper

Set in London in 1886, the main character of The Secret Agent is a Mr. Verloc whose occupation is that of a spy.  The book was written by Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924) and published in 1907.  In this passage, readers are introduced to a most interesting character.

The first one, a soldierly, abrupt, red-faced person, with white eyebrows and an explosive temper, could be managed with a silken thread. He left on reaching the age limit. The second, a perfect gentleman, knowing his own and everybody else’s place to a nicety, on resigning to take up a higher appointment out of England got decorated for (really) Inspector Heat’s services. To work with him had been a pride and a pleasure. The third, a bit of a dark horse from the first, was at the end of eighteen months something of a dark horse still to the department. Upon the whole Chief Inspector Heat believed him to be in the main harmless — odd-looking, but harmless. He was speaking now, and the Chief Inspector listened with outward deference (which means nothing, being a matter of duty) and inwardly with benevolent toleration.

Rutherford B. Hayes (1822 – 1893), the 19th President of the United States was referred to as the “Dark Horse President” when he was elected in 1877.  He fought — and was wounded — in the Civil War. While still in the Army, Cincinnati Republicans ran him for the House of Representatives.  While he accepted the nomination, he refused to campaign, because “an officer fit for duty who would abandon his post to electioneer ought to be scalped.”  In fact, in speaking of Rutherford B. Hayes, it was Century Magazine that wrote:

Perhaps he is that mysterious personage known as the ‘dark horse?’

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (1804 – 1881) wrote “The Young Duke” which was published in 1831.  This book is believed to be the first published use of the phrase dark horse.  In Book I, Chapter 5 readers find the following:

A dark horse, which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.

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