Header image of books

Shank’s mare

Q From Barry Nordin; related questions came from Anne Cox, Nick Carrington, and William Hale: Shank’s mare: I’m intrigued by this term for walking. However, my reference books, and a cursory AOL internet search, provide scant information on its derivation. I know you’ll be much better informed.

A I am better informed, but it took more work than I expected, as it isn’t in some of my standard references.

It’s Scottish, dating from the eighteenth century. There was a verb, to shank or to shank it, meaning to go on foot. This is from standard English shank for the part of the leg from the knee to the ankle, which comes from Old English sceanca, the leg bone. This verb developed into shank’s naig or shank’s naigie (where the second words are local forms of nag, a horse) and later into shank’s mare. It was a wry joke: I haven’t got a horse of my own for the journey, so I’ll use Shank’s mare to get there, meaning I’ll go on my own two feet. This supposed link with a person called Shank explains why the first word is often capitalised.

Another form, now more common in Britain, is shank’s pony.

Search World Wide Words

Support this website!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 31 Aug. 2002

Advice on copyright

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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sha4.htm
Last modified: 31 August 2002.