meaning and origin of the term ‘charley horse’


charley house - Oakland Daily Evening Tribune (California) - 12 July 1887

The Charley Horse.

The charley horse is abroad in the land and wasteth not at noonday. He is to a baseball player as the dingbat of commerce or the Indian to a St. Louis man. He stalketh seeking what player’s reputation he may devour. He is an iconoclast. He bats the pitcher out of the box quicker than the slogger who slogs. He is more dreadful than the umpire who bellows like the bull of Pashan¹, and runs like the steeds of Jehu², the son of Nimshi. But there is a balm for the afflictions of the charley horse. It is in the Grand Central saloon, 16 Third street, San Francisco. In this popular place of resort the very best wines, liquors, and cigars are purveyed. There are also dainty and cozy apartments for those who have the carolus³ steed.

from the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune (Oakland, California) of 12th July 1887

¹ to bellow, or roar, etc., like the, or a, bull of Bashan (not Pashan): to make an excessive noise, bull of Bashan denoting a very strong or ferocious man. It is an allusion to the Old Testament: Og was a brutish giant who ruled Bashan, an area east of the Sea of Galilee and famous for its cattle. He and all his followers were killed in battle against Moses and the Israelites.

² Jehu, the son of Nimshi and a king of Israel, famous for driving his chariot furiously (Second Book of Kings, 9)

³ Carolus: Latinised form of Charles



The term charley (or Charley) horse denotes a cramp or feeling of stiffness in the arm or leg, especially in baseball players.

The earliest instance that I have found is from the column Base Ball of The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) of 21st March 1886:

Ely is still suffering from a sore arm, and Reccius has what is known by ball players as ‘Charley horse,’ which is a lameness in the thigh, caused by straining the cord. Both will probably be able to work the soreness out if the weather continues warm.

Very early, explanations as to the origin of the term were given. The following is from The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Wheeling, West Virginia) of 23rd July 1886:

“Charley Horse.”

Base-ballists have invented a brand new disease, called “Charley-horse.” It consists of a peculiar contraction and hardening of the muscles and tendons of the thigh, to which ball players are liable from sudden starting and stopping in chasing balls. Pfeffer, Anson, Kelly, Gore, Williamson and others have been suffering from it more or less, some of them so badly that at times they couldn’t walk. Jack Glasscock is said to have originated the name because the way the men limped around reminded him of an old horse he once owned named Charley. At this rate, some imaginative bat-swinger will soon add “robust sow” and “trembling equine” to the list of diseases, probably because the way some of the players swill beer and booze reminds him of a “sow” he once owned and the delirium after-effects, of a horse with the blind staggers.

 the shortstop John Wesley ‘Jack’ Glasscock (1857-1947)

 Indeed, Charley is frequently found as a name for horses in US newspapers of the 1880s.

Later in 1886, and in 1887, several newspapers gave a different explanation, and attributed the creation of the term to the baseball player Joseph ‘Joe’ Quest (1852-1924); for example, the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) of 3rd January 1887:

The odd name of “Charley horse” was given to this affection years ago by Joe Quest. When a man breaks down in this manner he runs very much like a rocking-horse in full motion.

The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of 30th June 1887 elaborated on this explanation, but without mentioning Joe Quest:

Charley horse is a complaint caused by the straining of the cords in ball player’s leg. The name is said to owe its origin to the fact that a player afflicted with it, when attempting to run, does so much after the fashion of a boy astride of a wooden horse, sometimes called a Charley horse.

In any case, those early theories make improbable the current one, which is that Charley horse was named after the pitcher Charles ‘Old Hoss’ Radbourn (1854-97), who is conveniently said to have suffered from this condition; this clearly resembles a later rationalisation of the term.

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