What is the origin of the term “charley horse?”

Posted on February 27, 2006 at 8:26 pm

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Question

Dear Gramps,

I want to ask you a question. Seriously! I’ll be expecting a real answer. Thank you  so much for doing this column!! Let me know if you get this and if it’s confusing at all.  Here’s my question: Why do they call charlie-horses, charlie-horses?

Jason

 

Answer

Dear Jason,

In answer to your question, in the first place “charlie horse” is spelled “charley horse.”

“Charley horse” is an American expression of uncertain origin. It dates from the 1880s, and may have been originally baseball slang. It refers to a painful involuntary cramp in a leg muscle, usually that of an athlete, as a result of a muscular strain or a blow. There are lots of theories about the term’s origin. There’s a persistent story that the original Charley was a lame horse of that name that pulled the roller at the White Sox ballpark in Chicago near the end of last century.

The American Dialect Society’s archives reproduced a story that was printed in the Washington Post in 1907, long enough after the event that people were trying to explain something already mysterious. This piece said the term referred to the pitcher Charley Radbourne, nicknamed Old Hoss, who suffered this problem during a game in the 1880s; the condition was then named by putting together his first name and the second half of his nickname. The first recorded use, again from the ADS archives, is from the Sporting Life of 1886; that and other citations suggest it was coined not long before.

This term for a cramp or pulled muscle in the leg is originally a baseball term, or at least it first gained widespread use in baseball jargon. The reference is a mystery. No one knows who Charley was or why he may have had a lame horse.

So it really is uncertain how the term charley horse came to be.

 

Gramps

Summary
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What is the origin of the term
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I want to ask you a question. Seriously! I’ll be expecting a real answer. Thank you so much for doing this column!! Let me know if you get this and if it’s confusing at all.

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