Idioms Unpacked: Horse of a Different Color

Shades of Meaning from a Popular Expression

"Now that's a horse of a different color."

Have you heard this old expression before?

Remember the scene from The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her friends visited the Emerald City? There they beheld a most unusual carriage horse, whose coloring actually changed from one hue to another ... and another.

Dorothy gasped and said to the Emerald City gate guard, "What kind of horse is that? I've never seen a horse like that before."

And the gatekeeper replied, "He's the Horse of a Different Color, you've heard tell about."

Usually, when folks say something is "a horse of a different color," they are not speaking of horses at all.

Consider this scene, also from The Wizard of Oz:

Dorothy: Oh, please! Please, sir! I've got to see the Wizard! The Good Witch of the North sent me!
Guardian of the Emerald City Gates: Prove it!
Scarecrow: She's wearing the ruby slippers she gave her.
Guardian of the Emerald City Gates: Oh, so she is! Well, bust my buttons! Why didn't you say that in the first place? That's a horse of a different color! Come on in!

Clearly, in this instance, the gatekeeper of Oz was not talking about a horse. His meaning was something altogether different - a horse of a different color.

What does it mean, when we say something is "a horse of a different color"?

A horse of a different color metaphorically represents something that may be completely separate from what one originally expected. Frequently, a horse of a different color may be a complete surprise, an unexpected truth or a feature that seems somehow out of place.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, a horse of a different color may be likened to apples and oranges. In both idiomatic cases, folks may find themselves considering multiple issues, which may be quite contrasting. Like Dorothy's ruby slippers, a horse of a different color usually refers to a subject that breaks through preconceived notions or irrelevant assumptions.

Fairly often, "a horse of a different color" may refer to one person or item that does not fit in a group or series being discussed. For example, one might say, "Apple juice, orange juice and chocolate milk may be suitable breakfast beverages for children, but an energy drink is a horse of a different color."

What is the origin of the phrase, "horse of a different color"?

Culture and language scholars have proposed several possible sources of the age-old idiom, "a horse of a different color."

William Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, included dialogue that may have been part of the origin of the "horse of a different color" expression. In Act II, Maria speaks of her double-entendre plans against Malvolio and says, "My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that colour."

According to American lore, second U.S. President John Adams used the multi-hued equine expression to discuss divided loyalties. Adams apparently tagged a group of colonists who were willing to submit to employment under King John I as "a horse of another color."

Of course, in more modern usage, "a horse of a different color" might pertain to multi-hued racing silks. Horse racing owners, trainers, announcers and wagering fans often identify the speeding equines by the colors worn by the horses and their jockeys. When an unexpected horse comes from behind to win a race, observers may be surprised to see his colors crossing the finish line first.

Whatever the origin, "a horse of a different color" has made its mark in common English usage.

How important are horses' colors?

Actually, when it comes to selecting horses, color may be one of the least essentials concerns of all - at least, it ought to be. Remember this old phrasing: "Pretty is as pretty does."

The most colorful horses of all may be flashy to observe, but these may offer the most colorful rides as well, causing unseated riders to see stars. Or the horses with the most striking appearances may be ill-tempered or unwilling to work obediently.

In other words, a horse's true colors may actually be shown more by his attitude, his athleticism and his aptitude - rather than the colors of his coat. Perhaps we might say the same of humans as well.

Sources:

http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com

http://shakespeare.mit.edu/twelfth_night/full.html

http://www.answers.com

http://www.goenglish.com/Idioms

http://www.phrases.org.uk

http://www.usingenglish.com

http://www.yourdictionary.com

Published by Linda Ann Nickerson

Linda Ann Nickerson brings decades of reporting and a globally minded Midwestern perspective to a host of topics, balancing human interest with history, hard facts and often humor.  View profile

  • "Now that's a horse of a different color." Have you heard this old expression before?
  • Usually, when folks speak of "a horse of a different color," they are not speaking of horses at all.
  • What is the meaning of "a horse of a different color"?
Linda Ann Nickerson has written and published many helpful holiday how-to's, humor pieces, poems, and informative articles. Click her name at the top to view additional content from this prolific author.

1 Comment

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  • Curmudgeon in Training 2/20/2013

    Given that King John I was forced to sign Magna Carta in 1215 and John Adams was 2nd President of the U.S. (1797-1801), I rather doubt the former dealt with any colonists nor the latter having anything to say about it.