Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Charley Horse

I had known the tale of Old Hoss Radbourne for many years, but when I brushed up a little to present it as an inspirational blog posting I was surprised to find mention of the theory that Mr. Radbourne was the original source of the term "Charley Horse".

The phrase refers to a painful muscle cramp, usually of the leg.  There seems to be general agreement that it was a bit of baseball slang from the Radbourne era, with the first documented use being in a sports column from 1886.  But from there things get a little murky.

One would imagine that the pathetic sight of Charlie Radbourne spending hours getting his suffering arm to warm up would easily lend itself to the term "charlie horse", but the accounts linking Mr. Radbourne to the term actually mention a time when running the bases he had a leg cramp and started hobbling. 

Another explanation of the "charley horse" is that a ballpark-either in Chicago or a minor league park in the south-had an old draft horse named Charlie.  Just before the game a gimpy Charley would pull field grooming equipment around the infield.  The sight of "Old Charley" laboring so would lend itself to teasing any sore ballplayers with the term, especially one assumes anyone named Charles.

So which is the true origin?  Perhaps that is asking the wrong question.  Sometimes in etymology you can trace the course of a word as it flows down through time like a river.  Eventually you end up in a place-for instance 1880s baseball-where several streams come together, each making a contribution.  It becomes irrelevant to just designate one the true source as it takes their merging to create the stream in the first place.

Radbourne got his nickname "Hoss" for his solid work ethic.  He happened to be named Charley.  He suffered a great deal of pain for his heroic efforts.  No doubt he was occasionally compared to the broken down "Old Charley" dragging the infield dirt. 

Incidentally, there are many other terms for the same painful muscle spasm, or in some instances for a muscle contusion in the same region.  Here are my favorites:

Great Britain: Dead leg, Grand daddy, Chopper
Australia: Corked Thigh, Corky
Germany: Pferdkuss (horse kiss)
Netherlands: Ijsebeen (ice leg)
France: Bequille (crutch)
But Italy wins the prize, depending on what part of the country you are in a charley horse might be called:
Dura (tough one)
Vecchia (old woman)
or my personal favorite: 
Morso de ciuccio (donkey bite)

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