MUSINGS: The Great Charley Horse Decline

Charley horse

I was in bed last night and I felt a cold breeze on my face — a very nice one.  It was gusting, from time to time, through a nearby bedroom window.  It flashed on me that my mother used to warn us about such things.  We’d get a “Charley horse” in our necks, she’d say. Then it occurred to me that you don’t hear the term “Charley horse” much these days.  I looked around on the web this morning for its etymology — it is, after all, a strange term for a muscle cramp.  Aside from the fact that it seems to have had something to do with major league baseball — that is, maybe — the etymological question looked unsettled and uncertain.  Then I checked Google Books’ wonderful Ngram Viewer service for any trend in the term’s use (see chart).  And, indeed, according to Google’s massive database of word occurrences in its store of digitized books, “Charley horse” use is down substantially from where it was in the 1940s, when it peaked.  For comparison’s sake, I also ran “leg cramp” through the Ngram service — and, as you can see, its use has gradually increased since the late 1940s, now exceeding “Charley horse’s” occurrence frequency.  I can’t help wondering why.  “Charley horse” is of course a richly idiomatic term while “leg cramp” is decidedly denotational and unidiomatic.  Might it be that idiomatic word use is more generally on decline in American English, say perhaps because of the growing diversity in American society?  There are many advantages to diversity, I think — and, truth be told, I miss things like the cultural diversity in restaurants and cheeses that are so readily at hand in Berkeley.  But losing idiomatic speech, of course, wouldn’t be one of the advantages.  That is, of course, if my shot-in-the-dark hypothesis has any merit at all.  Which must be doubted.

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2 Responses to MUSINGS: The Great Charley Horse Decline

  1. Margo says:

    I thought perhaps you were going to tell us how the term originated. Whatever they are called, I am not fond of them but have discovered ways to deal with them. What is your solution?

    • ronroizen9 says:

      Hi Margo! I started with Wikipedia on this and then was led to some academic articles. But the latter wanted the usual high fees for pdf purchases, so I turned my attentions elsewhere. The etymology looks, as I mentioned in this post, unsettled and uncertain. Thanks!

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