Sunday, September 02, 2007

Charley Horse

I work up in the middle of the night wondering about the origin of the phrase charley horse. Is it one of those ruined French things, like "tally-ho" coming from il est haut ("he is up!") with the "ley" in Charley actually a French le something? (Blank) le hors? But no, the "s" wouldn't be sounded - unless it went back many centuries into Old French. Blank-the-outside. I can't see any connection of that with a charley horse. Char...sur...cherCould be a weird idiom of some kind.

This is strange even for me, to wonder about such things, at least immediately upon awakening. Oh hang it all, I had to know. The OED has "origin uncertain," or actually "orig. unc." Well thank you very much. Maybe it's one of those Gaelic phrases those gaelophiles are always trying to sell, that look so improbable in spelling, but may actually be true by sound.

Fortunately, google is up and running, even in the middle of the night. There are three thoroughly unlikely derivations from the late 19th C, plus one really remote possibility from the 17th C. As the first mention of the term comes in relation to baseball, there's still some chance that there is a Gaelic connection, as most ballplayers were Irish then. If anyone fluent in 19thC lower-class Gaelic want to have a go at "Charley horse," I'm a sympathetic audience. But the strong money is on the type of injury that baseball players had that made them limp, like a horse, or perhaps a direct reference to Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn, a great early pitcher. One only runs across his name when they list the pitchers with 300 or more wins nowadays, but he went 59-12 with a 1.83 ERA pitching for Providence in the 1890's. In case you ever wanted proof that baseball was a different game back then. 70+ starts, most of them complete games, with crummy, heavy baseballs - I don't think they threw like Clay Buchholz for 600 innings a season, thanks. I suppose if Providence is your idea of a major-league city, though...

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