Dear Word Detective: While composing an email, I recently used the word “roughshod,” as in “to ride roughshod” over someone. I was surprised when the spellchecker did not disagree with my first hack at spelling the unusual word, as it just looked wrong. Despite having used the word verbally on many occasions, I didn’t recall ever writing it or having seen it in print. I know the meaning of the phrase is to be domineering. I can only guess the phrase is an allusion to being run over by someone or something outfitted or “shod” with something rough, shoes or tires perhaps. — Major Thomas Bauchspies, Baghdad, Iraq.
Well, that’s the problem with computer spellcheckers. You never know whether they (and you) are spelling the word correctly, whether someone has made a mistake in the dictionary file they check things against, or whether they’re just messing with your mind. I have mine set to just underline suspect words, and it usually flags typical errors like “teh.” But occasionally it will quietly accept something one of the cats types while I’m out of the room (such as “WiDdl3e9lim” or “7thtro!!”), which are interesting words but usually not what I had in mind for my next sentence. It really makes me wonder what else it’s considering perfectly acceptable.
For an idiom that’s been around since the late 18th century, “to ride (or “run”) roughshod” remains remarkably popular today. A search for the phrase on Google News returns 113 hits from current news sources. The phrase seems especially popular in sports coverage (“Rangers ride roughshod over Falcons”), where it’s used as a synonym of “vanquish” or “decisively defeat.” But it’s also popular in political coverage (“Now, after years of being allowed to run roughshod over Wisconsin’s political process, these ‘independent expenditure’ groups may find themselves forced to compete on a level playing field,” Green Bay Press-Gazette, 11/13/08). This is more in line with the full modern meaning of “to ride roughshod,” which is “to act without any consideration for legal constraints, norms of behavior, or the feelings of others.”
All of these meanings are, however, figurative, not literal. The original literal meaning of “to ride roughshod” was far more brutal. In the 17th century, a horse that was “roughshod” was shod with horseshoes with the nailheads, or sometimes metal points, projecting from the bottom of the shoe. This gave the horse better traction on slippery ground or ice. But when cavalry horses were “roughshod,” they became brutal weapons in a charge against foot soldiers. As bad as being trampled by a horse must be, being struck by “roughshod” hooves is apparently far worse.
Thus “to ride roughshod” began as a synonym for “to brutally crush or tyrannize,” and only after several centuries was it diluted to its modern metaphorical meaning of “to charge ahead with no regard for the rules.”