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My wife from Wisconsin and her family use the phase "it's a horse apiece". This is used in place of something like "it doesn't matter either way" or "both are the same". Where does this come from?

  • I think it's apiece -- one word. – Kris Jan 31 '14 at 7:24
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It dates at least from the late 19th century, as found in the St. Paul (Minnesota) Daily Globe (March 27, 1893):

"What did Emperor William say to you when you approached him, Kelly?" asked McKenna.

"He didn't say a word until I approached him," answered Kelly. "Then he told me to keep quiet because the president of France was listening to our conversation. I didn't care a d—m for the president of France, so I said to William: 'He can't hurt me. Let him listen. It's a horse apiece, for I'm the King of China.' When I saw the Prince of Wales I asked him for a chew of tobacco, and kicked because it wasn't the brand I was used to chewing. He tried to get back at me by saying no man of my nationality and name could talk back to a peer of the realm. I said to him: 'Come off de perch, you want do see?'

For some background, the article says 'Workhouse' Kelly was a nearly 60-year-old Irishman who had lived in St. Paul for the previous 20 years, spending 90 days to six months of each year in the workhouse. He had been a sailor in the US navy in the 1850s and was "full of yarns".

The other two uses I found in Chronicling America are both from the Rock Island (Illinois) Argus. First from May 31, 1899 describing two baseball teams as appearing equal before a match:

It's a horse apiece. The shake-off occurs today.

Second from April 18, 1904, also describing two baseball teams:

It's a horse apiece now with the Rock Island and Davenport on the ante-season baseball games. Rock Island won yesterday afternoon's exhibition game at Twelfth street park 4 to 3, the same score by which Davenport defeated the local aggregation on the grounds across the river a week previous.


The Word Detective, after confirming the phrase isn't "it's a horse of peas", said in 2000:

"A horse apiece" means, as you supposed, "more or less equal" or "six of one, half dozen of the other." Field researchers for The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) first heard "a horse apiece" in 1980, but the phrase is undoubtedly much older. A similar phrase, "horse and horse," dates back to at least 1846.

According to DARE, the logic of "a horse apiece" may come from an old dice game called "horse" in which two players who have each lost a turn are said to be "a horse apiece." Or it may just be a variant of "horse and horse," describing two horses racing neck-and-neck down a racetrack.


Tom_MN posted to the A Way with Words Discussion Forum with some geographical boundaries:

I have a lot of fun with the saying “a horse apiece.” It is commonly used in the northern 2/3 of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan yet unknown in adjacent Minnesota, except perhaps on the iron range in NE Minn. I know 2 people from NE Minnesota who say it. A lot of culture like food was carried from iron mines in the UP of Michigan and northern Wisconsin to the iron mines in NE Minnesota so there may be a link there. Or they just learned it from Wisconsinites like I did (we all work together).

The occurrence of “a horse apiece” in the Upper Midwest is pretty much defined by the Wisconsin state line on the west. People on the Wisconsin side of the St Croix River use the expression every day, while people a mile away on the Minnesota side have never even heard the expression (and there is an interstate and short bridge connecting the 2 areas!).

4 anecdotes:

I recently started to work a lot with northern Wisconsinites and UP-ers so now hear the saying often. The first time I heard it I thought people were saying: “a horse of peace.”

I have asked many people from Madison in southern Wisconsin if they know the expression– and universally I get a blank stare and claims that “no one in Wisconsin says that.”

I have asked three people from the UP of Michigan and they all say “a horse apiece” (as well as use the verb “pank” and say “eh” just like Canadians but those are other issues!).

I also mentioned the saying once at a party in Minnesota, and a 70 year old man perked up and said that people in Minnesota used to say it, but that he never hears it anymore.

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    +1 - thorough and educational as well. – anongoodnurse Jan 31 '14 at 15:40
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It's related to the game of Bar Dice, which is mostly played in the Midwest.

Bar Dice plays somewhat similarly to poker. Players roll multiple rounds and try to get as many of a kind as possible. The player with the best hand in each round gets out of the game, since it's a drinking game and the goal is not to win but to not lose. The last two players roll best two rounds out of three, and "a horse on me/you" is a slang comment for losing one of those rounds. If you lose two rounds, it's "two horses on me/you", and you have to pay for all the drinks used. If each player wins one round, the situation is "a horse apiece", and the last round decides the winner.

The meaning of the original, then, would be something like "it could go either way", "it's undecided", or "it's anybody's guess". I suspect there was just some drift in what situations the phrase could cover.

There doesn't seem to be a reason why it's specifically "a horse on you" rather than some other animal or object or phrasing. Chalk it up to the sometimes-inscrutable ways of slang.

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I grew up in South Central Minnesota. My father was born in 1938 with no association to Wisconsin whatsoever and he said this all the time. I also have a friend who grew up in Minnesota near the South Dakota/North Dakota border and his parents also said it commonly. They are in the same age group as my father.

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I grew up in north central South Dakota. "A horse apiece" was a very common saying from my father who was a farmer. He would be in his 90's if he were still alive. He also played dice often at the local restaurant. However, my son grew up in the east central part of South Dakota and none of his friends had ever heard it and he wondered where I got it from.

  • Great comment, but doesn't supply an answer. Can you move it to a comment to the OP? – Mitch Sep 16 '16 at 13:43
  • @Mitch This is at least a partial answer to the question "where does this come from". It documents regionality. – MetaEd Sep 16 '16 at 14:53
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I live in extreme southeast NoDak (richland county). I've heard this expression here from farmers and truck drivers - usually 60 years and older. I asked a sayer of it what it meant and he said, "You know, like a wash ...you've heard that before!" (like he was baffled by my query - LOL) I don't say it, but I like it.

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I grew up in southern WI and have heard it my whole life. Very common saying from Milwaukee to Madison.

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    Welcome. I'm afraid that this isn't really an answer to the question. Stick around though, you'll soon have the reputation points to be able to comment on any post. – JHCL Oct 19 '15 at 22:10
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I can't confirm the phrase is derived from horse racing before the dice game. The dice game "Bar Dice" as it's now called in WI but perhaps went by "Horse" in the past is still very common in WI. Not surprised it has survived in the heaviest drinking areas of the midwest and faded some in the less taverny regions.

Mark = the current score to beat All Day = Three rolls Horse on you (me)= a loss in the final 2 of 3 match up Horse a piece = tie in the final 2 of 3 match up Forty-six in two = Four 6's in 2 rolls Fifty-three all day = Five 3's in 3 rolls

  • (Presumably "WI" here means Wisconsin?) – Drew Jul 26 '16 at 15:02
  • yup. that's the United States Postal Service abbreviation for it. It's a common pattern here in the states to substitute the USPS abbreviation for the full name – engineerDave Feb 12 '18 at 18:36
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Several years ago I had found it referenced to a pickup basketball game we played as kids. We might have played 'Pig', or 'Horse', meaning one would score three or five baskets from the freethrow line. So 'a horse apiece' meant tied at five. Did basketballs exist in 1893? A little wikipedia search finds the 'basketball' was conceived in 1891 by a Canadian in a YMCA in New England. So it is plausible. I had also heard the claim it originated in Milwaukee, WI. Somebody would have to explain the bar dice game in more detail for me to get that, but it sounds maybe even more plausible.

  • Welcome to ELU.SE.This site strives to provide objective answers. Take the site tour or have a look at the help center to find out more about good answers. As it stands your answer is purely subjective. – Helmar Nov 2 '16 at 14:56

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