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Charley horse

Q From Gerard Joannes in France; a related question came from Edmund Matthews in the UK: Have you ever heard of a charley horse? Where does this phrase come from?

A It’s American, dating from the 1880s, and was originally baseball slang. It refers to a painful involuntary cramp in an arm or leg muscle, usually that of an athlete, as a result of a muscular strain or a blow. We’re not sure where it comes from, but there are lots of theories. There’s a persistent story that the original Charley was a lame horse of that name that pulled the roller at the White Sox ballpark in Chicago near the end of last century. The American Dialect Society’s archives reproduces a story that was printed in the Washington Post in 1907, long enough after the event that people were trying to explain something already mysterious. This piece said it referred to the pitcher Charley Radbourne, nicknamed Old Hoss, who suffered this problem during a game in the 1880s; the condition was then named by putting together his first name and the second half of his nickname. The first recorded use, again from the ADS archives, is from the Sporting Life of 1886; that and other citations suggest it was coined not long before.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Mar. 1999

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Last modified: 13 March 1999.