Wednesday, 20 February 2013

I Could Eat A Horse


What with the news that almost every snack in Europe is actually my little pony, and the jokes about spaghetti bologneighs, I keep being asked about the origin of the phrase I could eat a horse. Specifically, does it mean:

1) I am so hungry that I could eat something as large as a horse, an elephant or a blue whale.

Or

2) I am so hungry that I would be prepared eat something unusual, like horse, squirrel or cockroach.

So I set off to trace the phrase back. It turned out to be popular all the way through the nineteenth century. But once you get far enough, the phrase changes to I could eat a horse behind the saddle. This version pops up in the stage-play of Guy Mannering (1816) where it seems to be proverbial. The earliest reference I could find was in a book called The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves written by Tobias Smollett in 1760.

A chap is lying ill in bed and complaining about the medical treatment he has been receiving. I've highlighted the bits that I think are relevant:

"What do you chiefly complain of?"—"The doctor."—"Does your head ache?"—"Yea, with impertinence." "Have you a pain in your back?"—"Yes, where the blister lies."—"Are you sick at stomach?"—"Yes, with hunger."—"Do you feel any shiverings?"—"Always at sight of the apothecary."—"Do you perceive any load in your bowels?"—"I would the apothecary's conscience was as clear."—"Are you thirsty?"—"Not thirsty enough to drink barley-water." —"Be pleased to look into his fauces," said the apothecary; "he has got a rough tongue, and a very foul mouth, I'll assure you."—"I have known that the case with some limbs of the faculty, where they stood more in need of correction than of physic.—Well, my honest friend, since you have already undergone the proper purgations in due form, and say you have no other disease than the doctor, we will set you on your legs again without further question. Here, nurse, open that window, and throw these phials into the street. Now lower the curtain, without shutting the casement, that the man may not be stifled in his own steam. In the next place, take off two-thirds of these coals, and one-third of these blankets.—How dost feel now, my heart?" "I should feel heart-whole, if so be as yow would throw the noorse a'ter the bottles, and the 'pothecary a'ter the noorse, and oorder me a pound of chops for my dinner, for I be so hoongry, I could eat a horse behind the saddle."

Barley water was a standard medicine in the eighteenth century, and I can't find any reference to people drinking it for fun. I assume therefore that it tasted bad (and that it's rather different from the modern stuff).

Now, I don't know much about horses, but I'm going to assume that one that is saddled is sweating, and that the bit behind it is the backside. Not even in France do they eat sweaty horse poo. Not even in Verona.

So I'm going to say that the phrase I could eat a horse refers not to the size of the horse, but to its unusualness; and that it's roughly the equivalent of the American I could eat the tail end of a skunk.

I would be particularly amused if all the horse butchers in Verona were really selling beef.

13 comments:

  1. It may also have something to do with the food of the Turanic horsemen that one millennium ago roamed the Eurasian steppes. They used to pack horse and other sort of meat behind/ under the saddle in order to get it tender and more palatable. In parts of Eastern Europe (and possibly in medieval times throughout most of the continent) the custom of eating meat preserved behind a saddle is still a slur directed toward Hungarians, who trace their ancestry among those wandering horse mounted nomads, warriors that emerged in Europe about eleven centuries ago terrorising the place from Russia to France.

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  2. Why single out Verona? Horse meat is common in Italy, and you'll find "macellerie equine" all over the place, not to mention shrink-wrapped cuts of horse in any large supermarket.

    And my mother tells me it's more expensive than beef, so yes, it would make sense to switch them for nefarious purposes... except you wouldn't get away with it, as it looks quite different and it's immediately recognizable by the colour, even as mince. Not to mention the taste once you've brought it home. Think venison.

    (I say this as a vegetarian, and I'll go wash my mouth now... ;-) But as a meat-eating kid in Italy I loved horsemeat, especially steak tartare, IMO much better than beef tartare. For steaks, I found the taste a bit too strong and preferred beef, or pork.)

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  3. Er, I forgot the more on-topic comment. "Mangerei un cavallo" ("I would eat a horse") is also a common saying in Italy, where as I said above eating horse isn't as uncommon as in English-speaking countries. So maybe this is one stroke against your theory?

    (FWIW, personally I always interpreted it as referring to the size of a horse, but that's no proof of anything whatsoever of course.)

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  4. Is it not a description of extreme hunger - hunger severe enough that you'd consider sacrificing something that you really need? When you have a horse you have personal transport, means of transporting goods, and means of cultivating your fields. Post repast, life would be much harder...

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    1. That was roughly my interpretation, only I thought it went farther. I took it to mean "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse [while I'm] behind the saddle." That is, while I'm riding it. It's self-destructive, but worth because my hunger is so strong.

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  5. A variation is 'I could eat a horse and chase the jockey'.....

    Laurie -

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  6. In Yorkshire there is a phrase - "I could eat A scabby horse between two buggy mattresses!" or in other words "I could eat until I was rigwelted!"

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    1. ...and in the black country we use "I could eat a scabby 'oss" too

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  7. In Belgium we've got a similar saying: "Honger hebben als een paard". "Hungry like a horse". We have a kind of very heavy working horse here in Flanders. A working horse that has plowed fields all day would eat a lot.

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  8. For more on the spaghetti bologneighs theme, see:
    http://somegags.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/tesco-burgers-everything-you-want-from.html

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  9. Durham: 'I could eat a scabby horse between two chunks of mouldy bread'. And 'I am so hungry, me belly thinks me throat's cut'. Lovely.

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  10. Any thoughts as to why horse shit pertains to speaking nonsense. Is horse shit particularly more suspect than any other - apart from, perhaps the shit of a bull!

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  11. Of course, if the horse in question had been feagued with eels and ginger, that might make eating it a more tempting prospect!

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