Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Hold Your Horses

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 27, 2011

The expression hold your horses has been around for a long time and both literally and figuratively means to hold back instead of charging forth into something you may not know enough about at the time.

There’s an interesting OpEd piece in the Toledo Sunday newspaper of August 3, 1903 entitled, “Say, Mr. Councilman!” that reads in part:

It wouldn’t do you any  harm, Mr. Councilman, to go down to Columbus and take a street car ride.  You can get seven of ’em for a quarter.  You can ride 15 miles for less than 4 cents.  On nice, big, comfortable cars at that.

It isn’t necessary to fight the company.  No necessity for fighting anybody.  This is a business deal.  You are the agent of the people.  They rely on you to see that they don’t get the worst of it.  It’s a big deal.  So wait a minute.  Take your time.  Hold your horses.  Keep your shirt on.  Don’t be a crab.  Or a clam.  Or a dodo. Invoice your stock.  Figure out what you’ve got to sell.  And to whom it belongs.  See if it isn’t worth eight tickets for a quarter and universal transfers, anyhow.

Be true to the people.  Never mind who helped pay your campaign expenses.  There’s no politics in this.  You own no allegiance to any party or politician in strictly business matters.  Here’s a change and a time to do your own thinking.  And your own voting.

In 1855, the steamship George Law, with Lieutenant G. .V. Fox of the United States Navy commanding, left Aspinwall at 12:30 a.m. on March 16 and arrived at Quarantine at 10:30 a.m.k on March 24..  On March 26, 1855 the New York Times reported on what was going on once the steamship arrived at its destination.

The blow given all kinds of business by the Bank failures has been a severe one, and perfectly paralyzing for a time; how long it will last it is impossible to conjecture, but it will probably require a month or so to get things straight again.  Thus far there have been no failures among our merchants, there being an almost entire suspension of payment among them.  No man thinks of forcing collections, knowing it is useless, and there is a sort of mutual understanding and forbearance in that respect that is very creditable to all, and shows a general good feeling.  It certainly is policy, as anything like stringent measures at this time would result in general disaster and ruin.  Consequently there is no money to be had, and we must, in turn, rely on the good sense and good nature of creditors at the East.  That we shall be able to pay after a time is without a doubt, but just at this moment “it can’t be did,” so “hold your horses.”

An edition of the New Orleans Picayune newspaper from September 1844, ran an article that had this line in it:

Oh, hold your hosses, Squire. There’s no use gettin’ riled, no how.

At the time, hoss was the slang term for horse and was used interchangeably by people living in America.  In fact, in 1814 Connecticut-born David Humphreys (1752–1818) wrote a comedic play entitled “The Yankey in England” which was published in 1815.  During the Revolutionary War, he had been a lieutenant colonel and aide-de-camp to George Washington, and was appointed sole commissioner in Algerine affairs in 1793, among other high-profile posts. “The Yankey in England” told the story of an American Whig and Tory officers meeting a French nobleman and an adventuress.  In the play, he wrote:

The boys see a ghost in the form of a white hoss; and an Indian in every black stump.

As early as the 14th century, cannons and mortars of bronze, brass, or iron mounted on two-wheeled carriages became part of military manoeuvres.  Since horses were also part of military manoeuvres, it is very likely that this  expression was part of the language of the day.

What’s more, in Book XXIII of Homer’s Iliad, Patroclus’ funeral games sees the son of Atreus call out to Antiochus with the suggestion that he hold his horses.  Let’s not forget that during Roman times, Romans had a man at the ready to hold their horses in the midst of battles. 

And since gunpowder is a Chinese invention, and since horses were also part of the Chinese military even then, it’s very likely that the expression hold your horses has its origins in ancient China.

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