There’s no G in “free rein” or “tight rein” or “to rein in someone.” Those are metaphors derived from a horse’s reins, but people now seem to interpret them as related to a monarch’s reign and add the G. That’s what linguists have lately taken to calling eggcorns, attempts to make better sense of a word when folks don’t know its original derivation or context.
Those terms have become unfamiliar because they grew out of a horse-based economy. We no longer have the daily context to remind us of their original usage and meaning.
Similarly, people are now saying they’re “straddled with” problems instead of “saddled with” them because horse saddles are no longer part of our lives. People wonder what “riding roughshot” means because we no longer have to wonder about having a horse “roughshod”; that refers to horses shoed with the nailheads sticking out a little for extra traction, and I had to look it up myself. “Souped up” started as racing-track slang; now some people are using “suped up,” probably inspired by Superman.
Our language has lots of terms derived from the horse-based economy. Some are obvious (looking a gift horse in the mouth), others less so (long in the tooth), and some on their way out through obscurity (kick over the traces).
Those phrases survive like the traces of our physical equine infrastructure. In the center of my home town there’s a flower planter at the ideal height for a horse—because it was originally a fountain where drivers and riders could water their animals. But most of the unneeded parts of that infrastructure—small ponds, hitching-posts, stables, ferriers’ shops—have disappeared, swept away like manure from the streets.
As technological change has sped up, we’re probably making once-familiar phrases into anachronisms faster than ever. Kids today have never touched a telephone or television “dial.” A friend told me about having to explain to a college student what “drop a dime” meant. When I was a lad, an “E ticket” meant you could go on the very best rides at Disneyland; now it’s what I don’t bring to the airport. Soon people may be interpreting “champing at the bit” to refer to data.
TOMORROW: The carrot and the stick.
(Image above from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr stream.)