Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thursday Trivia: Horse of a Different Color

Dorothy & Toto, 1939
Publicity photo, public domain
Guardian of the Emerald City: State your business!

Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion & Tin Man: We want to see the Wizard!

Guardian: *gasps* The Wizard? But nobody can see the Great Oz! Nobody's ever seen the Great Oz!
Even I've never seen him!

Dorothy: Oh, please! Please, sir! I've got to see the Wizard! The Good Witch of the North sent me!

Guardian: Well, bust my buttons! Why didn't you say that in the first place?  
That's a horse of a different color! Come on in!

You probably all know where this dialog came from: the classic tale, The Wizard of Oz.
(Did you know this year marks the 75th anniversary of the movie?)

And you may have already guessed this wasn't the first use of today's phrase - though it may be one of its most famous.

First: what exactly does "a horse of a different color" mean?

As you may have inferred from the Guardian's comment, this idiom is another way of saying "oh, that's another matter entirely!" In other words, the topic or issue at hand wasn't at all what you had originally thought it was.

We can trace the phrase back 1601, though no doubt it existed earlier. Its first use in print came in a roundabout way by the great Bard, William Shakespeare.

In his play, Twelfth Night, we see a trio of characters scheming against a much maligned Malvolio. Poor Malvolio, a man of puritanical values who has fallen hard for Olivia - and our trio knows it!

Our nefarious trio:

SIR TOBY: He shall think, by the letters that thou wilt drop, that they come from my niece, and that she’s in love with him.
MARIA: My purpose is, indeed, a horse of that color.
SIR ANDREW: And your horse now would make him an ass.
MARIA: Ass, I doubt not.
SIR ANDREW: Oh, ’twill be admirable!

Poor Malvolio!

But wait - Maria did not exactly invoke our phrase, word for word. True. Shakespeare took an idiom of that time and inverted it. This type of play on words was a technique he was fond of using.

No one knows for certain but word historians suspect the phrase's origin came from the sport of jousting in tournaments (which turned from actual war practice in the 11th century to a spectator sport in the 13th).

The horse would wear its knights colors, and one could choose which color you backed to win. If the horse and knight team favored as most likely to win did not, then the tourney went to a horse of a different color!

Bavarian tournament engraving from the 1400s. Public Domain.

By the way, in the Wizard of Oz movie, there really were horses of a different color. To achieve this feat of movie magic, set designers put a paste of jell-o on the horses. The scenes had to be shot quickly before the horses could lick the coloring off.

(And yes, the production crew consulted with the ASPCA prior to landing on jell-o as their go-to coloring source. But please do not try to do this to your pet at home!)


IMDb's Wizard of Oz page of quotations 
IMDb Trivia

MIT's Complete Works of Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
John Fricke, Jacy Scarfone, William Stillman. The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History. Warner Books, 1989.


  1. Actually we have never heard of that phrase so it is a new one for us. Have a tremendous Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. We sure never would have guessed about the jello!!!

  3. we like de poneez on de left...coz he haza anchor....which iz grate for boats when ya wanna
    due sum fishin....

    we noe....we iz inn sane !!


  4. Interesting once again. You never cease to amaze us with the things you come up with. Keep em coming.

  5. Very interesting! I watched the Wizard of Oz for the 10 millionth time on Easter Sunday! It is one of my very favorite movies EVER!! I have read about people coloring animals with Jell-O and Kool-Aid. I prefer my dogs normal colored! haha!

  6. My favorite part of The Wizard of Oz is the horse of a different color! Cool to know how they achieved that effect!

  7. And did you know yesterday was the Bard's birthday? It was also the date that he died.

  8. It's amazing how these idioms last over generations! Language is fluid and ever changing and yet incredibly solid and stable in its' own way as well."Jell-O'd" horses for the W of O sounds labour intensive! :p

    the critters in the cottage xo

  9. My human is surprised the production consulted with the ASPCA on the jell-O'ed horses for The Wizard of Oz - they were very lackadaisical about that sort of thing back in those days. The history of animals and Hollywood, especially back in the early to mid-1900s is often shameful like that.

  10. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. XO, Lily Olivia, Mauricio, Misty May, Giuletta, Fiona, Astrid, Lisbeth and Calista Jo

  11. As always, very interesting and learned lots! P.S. We love your new header!!!

  12. I always loved that scene in the movie with the different colored horses and always wondered how they did that. Now I know! :)

  13. Thanks for the trivia! Really enjoyed this week's.


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