Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 4 December 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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A reader tells me that he had always thought ‘one-horse town’ must have derived from a 1940s film script in which John Wayne pushes open the swing doors of a saloon, gets his whisky, then inquires, ‘Whadda they call this one-horse town?’ But my correspondent finds Trollopean connections for the phrase.

He does not say which biography he is drawing on, but he sets the scene in 1855, when Trollope had to appear before a parliamentary committee at the instigation of some Irish MPs. It is certainly the case that in 1854 Trollope had returned to Ireland, where he had made a new life in the 1840s. In the hot July of 1855, I am told, he answered 1,672 questions from the committee about Irish postal arrangements.

He is said to have explained that, according to the volume of mail to a town, it would receive a delivery by coach and four, or a smaller vehicle with two horses, or even one horse. Dissatisfied representatives of Clonmel and other towns demanded something better, ‘We don’t want one-horse towns, we want our mail at 5 a.m. like everyone else.’ This sounds plausible, but is it really the origin of the phrase?

‘Find me out a sensible valetudinarian,’ wrote that quarrelsome traveller and opium addict Philip Thicknesse in 1777, ‘who will travel as we do in a landau and one.’ Those who sought comfort used a small carriage rather than riding. From the middle of the 18th century we find references to one-horse chairs or chaises. In 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his comic poem ‘The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay’, which, if I remember aright, wore out all at once and fell into dust.

The OED has no doubts that it is to O.W. Holmes’s country that we owe the word one-horse in the sense ‘of limited resources’. It records a quotation from 1853: ‘These one-horse meetings are got up by men whose capital consists in brass,’ commented the Oregonian newspaper of Portland. In 1855, the Knickerbocker (presumably a New York publication) quotes the phrase ‘one-horse town’ as a description of Mobile by an inhabitant of New Orleans. In The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, Oliver Wendell Holmes adds the metaphorical usage to the literal ‘one-hoss shay’, referring to ‘a country clergyman with a one-story intellect and a one-horse vocabulary’.

So it seems that, after all, it did not take the questioning of Trollope to produce this useful equine figure.