One Horse Town

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 2

It sure is hell living in a one-horse town. There ain't nothing to do, baby, in this one-horse town. I've seen the Mardi-Gras and I've been in one-horse towns. I was in some one-horse town, waiting for a plane. It's a one-way street in a one-horse town.

The list keeps growing. I've come to Lyrics.com to find the name of a song I heard in a podcast. I didn't catch the name, just the phrase "king of a one horse town." And, truthfully, I've already found the song I was looking for (it’s linked below). But in searching for the song I wanted, I went down a rabbit hole of songs featuring the idiom "one-horse town."

It's a long, long list and the songs cover a wide swathe of genres from blues to country to rock to punk and every flavor and combination therein. In the paragraph at the top of this issue, you've got everyone from Elton John to Gordon Lightfoot to the Clash. So, what gives? What is it about this idiom that makes it so popular for songwriters?

According to the dictionary (see below), "one-horse" town just means, small town. Some dictionaries add in qualifiers like "of no consequence" or "with few amenities," and that can make it an attractive bit of flavor for a writer. After all, it's not often you find an idiom that so colorfully describes the actual thing; I mean, if you use a hyphen the idiom is even the same length as it's meaning! But I don't think that's the only, or even the main, reason why it's used so often.

Reading randomly through the lyrics of several songs that are unfamiliar to me, the two emotions or moods that seem to be paired with one-horse town are either confinement or abandonment. Every protagonist is either stuck in their one-horse town (by the law, by a commitment to a lover, by a lack of means to escape) or, they are wandering from one small town to another (avoiding the law, running from or searching for a lover, and lacking the skills or means to stay in one place for long).

Here are a few more examples:

I'm from a one-horse town. I currently live in a one-horse town, albeit one thousands of miles and a vast cultural gap from the one I grew up in. I can identify with the feelings in these songs - some days more than others, of course - but...I think most of us can and that's why the idiom has come to carry the weight that it does. A small town is just a small town. Could be good, could be bad. But, a one-horse town? No, thanks. I think I’ll follow a different idiom...

“One-horse town.”

Definition(s)

Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins

A one-horse town is a small town with hardly any facilities, particularly in the USA. Such towns are associated with the Wild West and the term is first recorded in a U.S. magazine of 1855. The previous year, though, there is a record of a specific place of that name: ‘The principal mining localities are…Whiskey Creek, One Horse Town, One Mule Town, Clear Creek (etc.)’.

Origins

Bees Knees and Barmy Armies - Origins of the Words and Phrases we Use Every Day

Most of us have come across a ‘one-horse town’ - some of us live in one - for it is quite simply a very small and sleepy town where very little happens. Almost every Western movie ever made features such a town, and the expression is indeed American in origin. This vivid image was first used there in the nineteenth century to depict a community so small that a single horse would be enough to meet its needs. (Author - Harry Oliver)

Wiktionary:

The term "one-horse" originated as an agricultural phrase, meaning 'to be drawn/worked by a single horse.' This led to the use of this phrase in a metaphorical sense as something that is small or insignificant. Charles Dickens explained in his publication All the Year Round (1871): 'One horse' is an agricultural phrase, applied to anything small or insignificant, or to any inconsiderable or contemptible person: as a 'one-horse town,' a 'one-horse bank,' a 'one-horse hotel,' a 'one-horse lawyer', [etc.]

The Word Detective:

“One-horse” first appeared in print in the 1730s meaning “Of a vehicle or machine: pulled or worked by a single horse. Also, of a person: having or using only one horse” (OED). A “one-horse” carriage was a small rig, and a “one-horse” business was a humble operation (“‘One-horse farmers’ … had to struggle with the inconvenience of borrowing and lending horses,” 1887). By the mid-19th century the adjective “one-horse” had come to mean “small-scale” or “insignificant” in a general colloquial sense, and was applied to things that had no connection to actual horses, as it still often is…

Notable Events of the year 1855

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Not to beat a dead horse (sorry, not sorry), but one of the more interesting things I found while trying to learn the origins of today’s idioms was just how common it is. In between all the different definitions and origin stories were dozens of newspaper, magazine, and scholarly articles that use some version of “one horse town” in a headline or three. Here are some interesting ones:

Next Time: King for a day, fool for a lifetime. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.