The Grammarphobia Blog

A horse of another color

Q: I don’t get it. What, if anything, does a horse have to do with the expression “horse of another color”?

A: For centuries, English speakers have viewed the horse as some kind of standard against which to draw comparisons. And why not?

Horses have strength (“he’s as strong as a horse”), energy (“you work like a horse”), and big appetites (“she eats like a horse”).

The Oxford English Dictionary cites several such “proverbial phrases and locutions” in which “horse” is used for making comparisons.

In fact, horses may once have been considered models of sanctity, since the OED’s earliest example of a horsey comparison is “as holy as a horse,” from 1530.

The equine expression you ask about is another kind of comparison, one for saying that something is like or unlike something else. The two things being compared are imagined as horses, either the same or different in color.

As the OED explains, the expression “a horse of another (the same, etc.) colour” means “a thing or matter of a different (etc.) complexion.”

Oxford’s earliest example of this kind of expression comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, written sometime around 1600: “My purpose is indeed a horse of that colour.”

This early American example comes from a Philadelphia newspaper, the Aurora (1798): “Whether any of them may be induced … to enter into the pay of King John I. is ‘a horse of another colour.’ ” (The reference here is to President John Adams.)

And since we always like to quote Anthony Trollope, a favorite of ours, here’s a citation from The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867): “What did you think of his wife? That’s a horse of another colour altogether.”

The OED also has examples with “different color” instead of “another color.”

This quotation is from John Carter’s Taste and Technique in Book-Collecting (1949): “Buxton Forman’s A Shelley Library, however, was a horse of a different colour: no mere handlist but a fully annotated and richly informative study of Shelley’s original editions.”

And this one is from the BBC’s former magazine, The Listener (1966): “A horse of a somewhat different colour is that tycoon of the brush, pop-man Salvador Dali.”

Why a horse, rather than a pumpkin, an armadillo, or a ranch house of another color? We don’t know. We’ve read speculation that the expression may have originated in racing, but we haven’t seen any evidence to support this.

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