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Don't swap (change) horses

Posted by ESC on March 01, 2004

In Reply to: Horse phrases posted by ESC on March 01, 2004

: : Would like to know the origin of: "changing horses in the middle of the stream" and "see a man about a horse".

: Summarizing from previous discussion, the phrase "see a man about a horse (or dog)" relates to a person being "unwilling to reveal the true nature of his or her business."


: I've written previously about some of my grandfather's expressions.

: It also occurs to me that when I used to visit my grandparents as a child, my grandmother and grandfather had different ways of referring to going to the toilet. He would say "I'm going to see a man about a dog" and she would say "I need to spend a penny". I can guess the origins of her expression but am less clear on the origins of his. Any ideas?

: : : : Could both be classified as euphemisms? Are there many similar expressions?

: : : Yes. "Going to go see Miss Murphy."

: : To explain the phrase for non-native English speakers: When someone says that they are going to see a man about a dog they really mean that they are unwilling to reveal the true nature of their business.

: : The expression comes from the long forgotten 1866 play Flying Scud by a prolific Irish-born playwright of the period named Dion Boucicault. One of the characters uses the words as an excuse to get away from a tricky situation. This character, an eccentric and superannuated old jockey, says: "Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can't stop; I've got to see a man about a dog". This is the only thing that seems to have survived from the play.

DON'T SWAP HORSES IN MIDSTREAM - "Don't change leaders when they are in the midst of important projects. Probably originated in the United States. Used by Abraham Lincoln in his 1864 presidential campaign. The proverb is found in varying forms: Don't change horses in the middle of the stream." From Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996). A historian of Lincoln's era says that Mr. Lincoln was quoting an "old Dutch farmer." President Lincoln used the expression in "an informal address that he made to a delegation from the National Union League who had called to offer their congratulations upon his renomination for the presidency, June 9, 1864. Lincoln knew that there had been considerable disaffection with the conduct of the Civil War and that many loyal Republications felt that he had failed as the commander in chief. Hence, in his speech, he said, 'I do not allow myself to suppose that either the Convention or the league have concluded to decide that I am either the greatest or the best man in America, but rather they have concluded it is not best to swap horses whil crossing the river, and have further concluded that I am not so poor a horse that they might not make a botch of it in trying to swap.'" From 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions from White Elephants to Song and Dance by Charles Earle Funk (Galahad Book, New York, 1993).

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