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shameless pleading





One-horse town

His name is Paul Revere….

Dear Word Detective: Hello Word Detective, fellow Ohioan here. I see you are enjoying August here in the Buckeye state. Normally I can come up with a pretty fair folk etymology answer to almost any idiom, but “one horse town” has me stumped. It’s also the first time I didn’t find an answer already in your archives. I hope it piques your curiosity like it did mine. — Hoodya Love.

[Note: this column was sent to newspapers and subscribers last August.]

Ohioan? Moi? Um, OK, but my heart remains at 82nd and Broadway, in a booth at Cafe 82, the best Greek coffee shop in NYC. As for my tenure in the Buckeye State, I think James McMurtry said it best in his song “I’m Not From Here”: “I’m not from here, but people tell me / it’s not like it used to be / they say I should have been here / back about ten years / before it got ruined by folks like me.”

I am, however, sitting in the perfect venue in which to tackle your question. We don’t actually live in a town, but the one a few miles away (population 943) is currently embroiled in a fierce debate over whether to do away with the one traffic light in town. This is a town where people routinely drive their lawn tractors and golf carts to the gas station to buy beer, and some folks apparently find that light annoying.

A “one-horse town” is, of course, not simply a small town, but a very, very small town. The term is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “a small or rural town; a town where nothing important or exciting happens,” a definition many small-town residents would, of course, find objectionable.

Since “one-horse town” dates back to the mid-19th century, when most transport was still horse-drawn, one might suppose that “one-horse town” as a dismissive term for a small village might originally have implied that the town was so small that it had only one horse. (That actually wouldn’t make any sense; in a truly small town the horses would definitely outnumber the human residents, just as every single citizen of the town near us seems to own at least two cars.) But “one-horse” actually has a history quite apart from its application to small towns.

“One-horse” first appeared in print in the 1730s meaning “Of a vehicle or machine: pulled or worked by a single horse. Also, of a person: having or using only one horse” (OED). A “one-horse” carriage was a small rig, and a “one-horse” business was a humble operation (“‘One-horse farmers’ … had to struggle with the inconvenience of borrowing and lending horses,” 1887). By the mid-19th century the adjective “one-horse” had come to mean “small-scale” or “insignificant” in a general colloquial sense, and was applied to things that had no connection to actual horses, as it still often is (“Chest pains and breathlessness in a one-horse Greek airport, with the temperature nudging 105,” 2000). This is the sense of “one-horse” found in “one-horse town.” A “one-horse town” could have dozens of actual horses and still rate the name. “One-horse” even spawned the derivative term “one-horsey,” meaning “small and backward” (We liked the little-towness of Englewood. It was very one-horsey, but I loved it,” 1999).


4 comments to One-horse town

  • Moley

    My understanding (and I have no citations for this) is that it derived from a time when horses could be hired at inns/stables for onward travel, if you had no horse of your own. At such an establishment (perhaps the only one) in a small town, only one horse might be available, making it a “one-horse town”. The alternative, presumably, being Shanks’ Pony.

  • Kate

    My curiosity about this piece of idiom was stirred the other day while driving through the narrow and badly-paved roads of the English countryside. I was musing whether the term “one horse” applied to how many horses or horse-drawn vehicles could get down the narrow village streets. Some of them were so narrow that you had to drive up onto the pavement to get out of the way of oncoming traffic, while doing your best to dodge pedestrians. They’re beautiful little places, but you wouldn’t get much more than one horse at a time down the street!

  • karon

    I have no source either, in fact my quest for one led me here. I had been told that a one horse town was at a distance it took to ride one horse in a day. For you Buckeyes..the distance between Cleveland and, say Akron…about 20-30 miles. At that point you’d have to stop because your horse would need rested. If you look many towns they are about 20-30 miles apart. So I wonder….

  • Colin mckenzie-murdoch

    I thought a one horse town meant a place where the only horse owner was the Sheriff who could then easily outrun the crooks

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