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Beggar on horseback

Q From Sheila Davis: Would you be able to tell me the origin of the phrase, Put a beggar on horseback and he’ll ride to hell?

A I’m not at all sure that it is possible to say where it comes from, at least not exactly. It’s one of those “lost in the mists of time” things. But the saying is first recorded in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, in the form “Set a beggar on horseback, and he will ride a gallop”. Yet another version is “Set a beggar on horseback, and he will ride to the devil”.

In its various forms, the saying means that if one gives an undeserving person an advantage, he will misuse it. A little later, it was shortened to the idiom a beggar on horseback, meaning a person, originally poor, who has been made arrogant or corrupt through achieving wealth and luxury. The shorter phrase has been a frequent choice for the titles of books and at least one play.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Apr. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 27 April 2002.