Q From Christina Gibbs: Genealogists searching old newspaper and court records in America often find references to “seven head of horse creatures”, with the number variable, of course. I’ve seen this in works from the 1800s. Why did they use this circumlocution?
A This is an intriguing usage, hardly recorded in dictionaries, even the biggest, and which hasn’t been noticed or discussed by any writer on language I’ve been able to identify. I’ve found some intriguing leads but can’t claim to provide you with a satisfyingly complete answer.
My check of old newspapers similarly found many examples, the earliest being an advertisement in the Hagers Town Torch Light And Public Advertiser of Maryland, dated February 1829: “1 Horse Creature, 5 Cows, 6 Sheep and Hogs, Wheat, Rye, Corn & Buckwheat by the bushel”. The Dictionary of American Regional English records horse beast and horse critter, but not horse creature. The English Dialect Dictionary a century ago likewise recorded horse beast; the printed record shows this is an ancient and once-common British English form, in use from at least the 1580s. Horse beast also appears in a charter in Pennsylvania in 1742, showing that it was, unsurprisingly, taken to the American colonies by early English settlers.
I’m at a loss to explain why people felt it necessary to expand horse in this way. So I asked academic members of the American Dialect Society list. Joel Berson recalled an American advertisement he had found dated 1715 for a horse race that distinguished “Horse, Mare or Gelding”. This led me back to the Oxford English Dictionary, which points out that horse was once widely used to specifically mean an adult male horse.
It could be that horse creature and horse beast were generic or formal terms that included any horse, of whatever breed, age or sex. That would explain why it’s often found in legal records and sale advertisements.
Following a hint from Jonathon Lighter, editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, I’ve found similar forms relating to cattle. There are ancient references in England to a rother beast, rother being a defunct word for a type of horned cattle, an ox or bullock. Old American sources have bull creature, bull critter and bull beast, but here the term refers specifically to the male animal and isn’t a generic term for cattle. There are examples to the present day in the US of cow creature for any domestic bovine; cow was long ago adopted by people who know little about livestock farming for an animal of any age or sex because English doesn’t have a unisex singular for cattle.
This suggests that some other reason must exist for adding creature or beast to an animal’s name. It might have been no more than a verbal tic that became established as an idiom.
Or it might have been a parallel to formations such as creature of the horse kind, which Joel Berson points out was once common. He found that form used of hog, goat, panther, opossum, weasel, cat and serpent, as well as horse. I’ve come across many examples with creature replaced by animal or beast, as in this from Cervantes’s Don Quixote: “He fell in with a couple of either priests or students, and a couple of peasants, mounted on four beasts of the ass kind.”