Wednesday 3 March 2010

Three Equine Etymologies

A few weeks ago I was playing poker. My opponent raised, I saw, he put his hand down on the table. I put my (better) hand down on the table and announced that I had won hands down. And at that moment a little lightbulb flashed on above my head, although it would only have been visible to a trained cartoonist. Also, the idea I was having was utterly wrong.

Winning hands down has nothing to do with poker and everything to do with horses; for though horses have no hands, jockeys do. In the final sprint of a close-run race a jockey forces his horse to run faster and faster by raising his hands and whipping his steed. If, though, there is no final sprint, if one horse is so far ahead that he can win at a canter, then the jockey is able to win hands down.

Another etymology I once thought that I knew was that of a dead ringer. There was (really) a craze in eighteenth century England for bells in gravestones. The bell would be attached to a rope the other end of which would be in the coffin beneath. This meant that if you had been buried alive accidentally (or even deliberately) you could simply ring for assistance. From this developed the idea that a dead ringer was someone who so resembled a deceased acquaintance that one would believe that rope and bell had been put to use. This etymology is beautiful and bollocks.

The term dead ringer emerged in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. It's to do with horses. It does, I admit, have an etymological connection to bells. Bell ringers in churches like to ring out a series of patterns each one of which is called a "change". Therefore you got the phrase "ring the changes" and from that you got the false idea that ringing was to do with changing and from that you got the term ringer for something that had been swapped for something else. You then go down to the bookies, place a bet on a slow horse, sneak into the stable at night and substitute a fast horse as a ringer. Then your collect you winnings and squander it all on etymological dictionaries. Dead just means accurate, as in dead centre.

Yet if those two origins seem disappointing, if you think me a joy-killing sport-spoiler for debunking such lovely myths, then I have a wonderful wonderful treat for you. Do you know what a flying fuck is? Have you ever wondered or considered what this rarely donated thing could be?

Although I once nearly convinced my brother that this was to do with swifts mating in mid-air, a flying fuck has nothing to do with birds and everything to do with having sex with somebody whilst riding a horse. This may sound difficult and indeed it probably is, although I suspect that the bouncing motion of a horse may help in some ways. The phrase was first recorded in around 1800 as part of a poem by Thomas Rowlandson called New Feats Of Horsemanship:

Well mounted on a mettled steed
Famed for his strength as well as speed
Corinna and her favorite buck
Are pleas’d to have a flying fuck.

Luckily for us, Thomas Rowlandson was a cartoonist and so this earliest citation comes complete with an illustration. The illustration is, of course, pornographic so I have decided to place it discreetly after the jump break. If you have a coarse and depraved soul, click on "Read More".

WARNING TO CHILDREN: Don't click on "Read More" or you'll go blind.
WARNING TO THE BLIND: No point clicking on "Read More", it's a damn picture.

If you can't make it out, the rest of the poem goes

While o'er the downs the courser strains,
With fiery eyes and loosened reins,
Around his neck her arms she flings,
Behind her buttocks move like springs.
While Jack keeps time to every motion,
And pours in love's delicious potion.

P.S. The rest of Rowlandson's series of eight pictures can be found here.
P.P.S. There seems to be some confusion on the internet over whether these pictures date from 1800 or 1845 the answer is that they date from 1800 but were not published together until 1845.

1 comment:

  1. Dead Ringers was also the title of a 1980's flick. The version I have on VHS features Arnold Schwarzenegger as the two "ringers". The dialogue in the film is mostly like this:

    Having a lot of pain can turn you into a different person...
    I'm in a lot of pain right now.
    Really? What kind?
    I think it's psychosexual....