Charley Horse

Why is the painful cramp you sometimes get in your leg called a charley horse? The answer involves baseball and continual adaptation of oral history.

What Is a Charley Horse?

A charley horse occurs when a muscle contracts involuntarily, causing a painful cramp that can last from just a few seconds to a whole day. They occur most commonly in the legs and feet but can happen elsewhere in the body.

These cramps can be caused by a number of things, including inadequate blood flow to the muscles, injuries, overusing a muscle, and stress. Another common cause is a mineral imbalance due to inadequate potassium, calcium, or sodium in the blood, which can be caused by dehydration.

Charley horse formerly referred to a muscle injury in the leg that caused blood to pool outside of the blood vessels. This is now known as a dead leg and often causes pain and limited mobility for several weeks.

So Who’s Charley?

The origin of the term charley horse to describe a muscle cramp is murky, but all sources point toward an origin in baseball.

L. Prang & Co, 1887, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The oldest use of the term was in an 1886 letter published in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Jim Hart, manager of the Louisville Colonels baseball team, wrote:

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.

Jim Hart, March 21, 1886, Courier-Journal, wordorigins.org

One well-known origin story of the term holds that “Charley” was a lame horse that pulled the roller to prepare the field at the Chicago White Sox ballpark (World Wide Words).

In a similar vein, baseball official Bill Brandt explained the term as a reference to a lame horse named Charley in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who pulled things around the ballpark. Between practice and the start of a game, the players watched as Charley dragged a dust-brush around the baseball diamond. When a player on the team suffered from a pulled tendon or other injury that caused limping, the other players would jokingly refer to him as “Charley Horse” (Shulman, 1949).

However, Brandt offered a different explanation shortly after this statement. He cited a joke made by coach Billy Sunday about a hobbling baseball player, in an analogy to a horse race the players had made a bet on. This explanation is doubtful as well, and some have conjectured that Brandt changed his story to honor Sunday shortly after Sunday died.

Henry Mencken, author of The American Language, conducted an investigation into the term at the request of the editors of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. Mencken’s research found several different explanations, none of them more plausible than the rest:

  • In 1934, Baltimore Orioles second basemen Bill Clarke claimed that the term referred to “Charley Esper, a left-handed pitcher, who walked like a lame horse.” However, the term was in use long before Charley Esper ever joined the Orioles.
  • In 1944, Billy Earle, a catcher who jumped around to several teams and dabbled in hypnotism and spiritual healing on the side, said the term was suggested by a Sioux City groundskeeper named Charley who had a horse.
  • In 1943, Dr. Logan Clendeming claimed that a charley horse was a ruptured muscle (based on the previous medical definition of the term), and it occurred in the same way that a horse suffered a string-halt. He seems to have connected the two based on pathology, though it remains unclear from this explanation exactly who “Charley” was.

None of Mencken’s proposed etymologies truly fit the bill in light of the earlier usage of the term. Apparently, Webster’s agreed: In Webster’s New International Dictionary, Third Edition (1961), charley horse was said to come from “the occurrence of Charley as a typical name for old lame horses kept for family use” (Woolf, 1973).

As one last explanation, the American Dialect Society cites an article in the Washington Post from 1907 that attempted to explain the term, which had already been in use for a few decades at that point. The article postulated that charley horse made reference to pitcher Charley Radbourne, who was affectionately nicknamed “Old Hoss.” Radbourne suffered a muscle cramp during a game in the 1880s. To describe the condition, the name charley horse was coined by putting together the pitcher’s first name, Charley, with part of his nickname, Hoss (a variant of horse; slang for a large, strong, and respected person). Thus, charley horse.

The Boston Beaneaters and New York Giants on Major League Baseball Opening Day 1886.
First from the left, Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourne gives the finger to cameraman.
Photo by F.L. Howe, April 29, 1886, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Sorry, charley—no one knows exactly where the term charley horse came from. All we can say for sure is that it became popular among baseball players in the 1880s and 1890s. Though there are many different theories, etymologists and historians continue to disagree about who originally coined the term. It’s likely that players used the term to poke fun at one another and that the retelling of their own stories became the origin of the phrase from their own point of view. The continual shaping and reshaping of oral history was a way for baseball players to make the term uniquely their own and stake a claim in the lingo of the game.

Sources

“Charley Horse.” May 29, 2020, Wordorigins.org. https://www.wordorigins.org/big-list-entries/charley-horse.

Joannes, Gerard. “Charley Horse.” World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-cha1.htm.

Mencken, Henry Louis. The American Language, Supplement II, p. 735. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, fourth edition 1936, supplement 1948).

Moore, Kristine. “Charley Horse.” September 18, 2009. Medline. https://www.healthline.com/health/charley-horse#causes.

O’Conner, Patricia T., and Kellerman, Stewart. “Who’s the ‘Charley’ in ‘Charley Horse’?” January 1, 2007, Grammarphobia. https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2007/01/charley-horse.html.

Shulman, David. “Whence ‘Charley Horse’?” American Speech, vol. 24, no. 2 (1949): 100–104. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/486616.

Wiktionary. “Hoss.” Accessed March 6, 2021, from https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/hoss.

Woolf, H. B. “Mencken as Etymologist: Charley Horse and Lobster Trick.” American Speech, vol. 48, no. 3/4 (Autumn–Winter, 1973): 229–238. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/3087830.

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