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The meaning and origin of the expression: Dark horse

A dark horse

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Dark horse'?

A dark horse is someone, who was previously little known, emerges to prominence in a competition.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Dark horse'?

Dark horseThis was originally horse racing parlance. A dark horse was one that little was known about and so and was difficult to place odds on. The figurative use later spread to other fields and has come to apply to anyone who comes under scrutiny but is previously little known.

Benjamin Disraeli provides the earliest known reference to the phrase in The Young Duke, 1831:

"A dark horse, which had never been thought of ... rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph."

The figurative use seems first to have been taken up when referring to the candidates for academic preferment:

The Saturday Review, 1860 - "A Headship ... often given by the College conclaves to a man who has judiciously kept himself dark."

Sketches from Cambridge, 1865 - "Every now and then a dark horse is heard of, who is supposed to have done wonders at some obscure small college."

Gary Martin - the author of the phrases.org.uk website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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