Dark Horse (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Dark Horse"?

The term "dark horse" means a person who keeps their abilities secret.
Dark Horse (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • John Major is now the Prime Minister? Well, he was a dark horse, wasn't he?
  • Simon Bates did not drop a mark in the Algebra test. He's a real dark horse.
  • Did you paint that? Wow, you're a proper dark horse.
Seeing is believing. For this reason, knowing is often associated with light, and not knowing is often associated with dark. For example:
  • It came to light.
  • Enlighten me.
  • Shed light on something
  • We were kept in the dark.
  • Dark matter
It follows, therefore, that a "dark horse" is one that is unknown. That explains "dark," but what about "horse"? The word "horse" features because the saying originates from horse racing in the mid-19th century. A dark horse was one that was unknown to gamblers before it pulled off a surprise win. An early mention of "dark horse" in this context appears in Benjamin Disraeli's novel "The Young Duke" in 1831:
  • "A dark horse which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph."
Nowadays, the term is widely used in figurative sense to refer to anything, but usually a person, whose ability has suddenly come to light, having previously been hidden. It is, of course, a metaphor.
black beauty film cover
  • Black beauty? He's a dark horse. (Comedian Tim Vine)
  • (You can't have a page on "Dark Horse" without this joke. Sorry.)

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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