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The meaning and origin of the expression: Put the cart before the horse

Put the cart before the horse

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Put the cart before the horse'?

Reverse the accepted or logical order of things.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Put the cart before the horse'?

The accompanying horse and cart image looks preposterous. That's as it should be as the word 'preposterous' entered the English language precisely to describe such back to front imagery. Of course, 'pre' derives from Latin and is a standard prefix, that is, it is 'at the front'. Likewise, the Latin 'post' means 'at the back', so 'preposterous' actually denotes the normal arrangement of things, with the front at the front and the back at the back. 'Postprerous' might have been a better choice of word but, like ''head over heels', which also makes no sense, it's too late to change now.

Put the cart before the horseThe earliest known reference to 'putting the cart before the horse' comes in John Heywood's A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, 1589:

To tourne the cat in the pan, Or set the cart before the hors.

Heywood was there comparing two things that were similarly nonsensical - cooking a cat and putting the cart before the horse.

A hysteron proteron is a figure of speech we inherited from the Greeks, in which the thing that should come second is put first; for example, 'putting on one's shoes and socks'. It isn't surprising that, when needing an Anglicised proverb to express that notion, the English turned toward what they knew best, that is, agriculture, and in particular, horses. There are more 'horse phrases' in English than those referring to any other animal, including 'man's best friends', dogs.

The notion of things being the opposite of what they rightfully should be seems to have played on the minds of the English at the time when modern English began to be formed, that is, in the 16th century. It is a common theme in Shakespeare and The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream all contain 'world turned upside down' magical elements.

Other 'back to front' English phrases include 'the tail is wagging the dog', 'upside down', 'topsy-turvy' and 'inside out'.

See also: The Preposterous.

See other 'Don't...' proverbs:

Don't cast your pearls before swine

Don't change horses in midstream

Don't count your chickens before they are hatched

Don't get mad, get even

Don't cut off your nose to spite your face

Don't keep a dog and bark yourself

Don't let the cat out of the bag

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

Don't shut the stable door after the horse has bolted

Don't throw good money after bad

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

Don't try to teach your Grandma to suck eggs

Don't upset the apple-cart

Gary Martin - the author of the 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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