His name is Paul Revere….
Dear Word Detective: Hello Word Detective, fellow Ohioan here. I see you are enjoying August here in the Buckeye state. Normally I can come up with a pretty fair folk etymology answer to almost any idiom, but “one horse town” has me stumped. It’s also the first time I didn’t find an answer already in your archives. I hope it piques your curiosity like it did mine. — Hoodya Love.
[Note: this column was sent to newspapers and subscribers last August.]
Ohioan? Moi? Um, OK, but my heart remains at 82nd and Broadway, in a booth at Cafe 82, the best Greek coffee shop in NYC. As for my tenure in the Buckeye State, I think James McMurtry said it best in his song “I’m Not From Here”: “I’m not from here, but people tell me / it’s not like it used to be / they say I should have been here / back about ten years / before it got ruined by folks like me.”
I am, however, sitting in the perfect venue in which to tackle your question. We don’t actually live in a town, but the one a few miles away (population 943) is currently embroiled in a fierce debate over whether to do away with the one traffic light in town. This is a town where people routinely drive their lawn tractors and golf carts to the gas station to buy beer, and some folks apparently find that light annoying.
A “one-horse town” is, of course, not simply a small town, but a very, very small town. The term is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “a small or rural town; a town where nothing important or exciting happens,” a definition many small-town residents would, of course, find objectionable.
Since “one-horse town” dates back to the mid-19th century, when most transport was still horse-drawn, one might suppose that “one-horse town” as a dismissive term for a small village might originally have implied that the town was so small that it had only one horse. (That actually wouldn’t make any sense; in a truly small town the horses would definitely outnumber the human residents, just as every single citizen of the town near us seems to own at least two cars.) But “one-horse” actually has a history quite apart from its application to small towns.
“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 (“Chest pains and breathlessness in a one-horse Greek airport, with the temperature nudging 105,” 2000). This is the sense of “one-horse” found in “one-horse town.” A “one-horse town” could have dozens of actual horses and still rate the name. “One-horse” even spawned the derivative term “one-horsey,” meaning “small and backward” (We liked the little-towness of Englewood. It was very one-horsey, but I loved it,” 1999).