I'm reading Kim Philby's autobiography, My silent war, where in the early pages he describes an acquaintance as being under the horse's mouth, the proverbial horse being some high-ranking official.

Being situated under the horse's mouth is silly because horses, as far as we know, don't talk in a natural language. It would also be somewhat careless as horses are known to bite unprovoked on occasion. But the phrase quickly conjures up the image of a squire or assistant, loyally standing by his mounted master, near the horse's head, quite close to its mouth. In this light the expression makes sense, but I'd like to verify that, hence my question here.

To kill two birds with one stone I'd also like to ask about the etymology of the more canonical expression, straight from the horse's mouth. I'd expect the two to be somewhat related, but with issues of natural language one can never be certain.

  • Mounted is the word you need here. Otherwise your English is very good. :-) – Erik Kowal May 18 '14 at 8:23
  • @ErikKowal I try my best, thank you. I thought the rules for 'bemounted' would be the same as for 'besieged' but I gather you can't put 'be-' in front of an adjective? – rath May 18 '14 at 8:40
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    That depends on the adjective. I'm afraid you'll have to deal with them individually -- there is no rule about which adjectives or past participles you can prefix with be-. – Erik Kowal May 18 '14 at 9:05

Straight from the horse's mouth describes the most reliable information received directly from the source rather than second hand. Derivation is from horse racing, whimsically asserting that describing a prediction of winning should not be ignored because it is not from the owner, jockey or stable workers but from the horse itself. Likely Kim Philby is alluding to this. As a spy, high ranking officials would have the information he needed. So he suggests that his job placed him in the ideal situation to get that information directly.

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  • Good answer and a reasonable assumption; however at this stage he hasn't gone into his spying activities (I'm still at around page 30-40). +1 nonetheless. – rath May 18 '14 at 8:21

You're taking Mr Philby far too literally. He is referring to the 'high ranking official' as 'the horse's mouth.' This is a very common English allusion to the idiom "straight from the horse's mouth."

The second person works directly for 'high ranking official' and so is under 'the horse's mouth' as any functionary is under their boss. Thus, in Philby's mind, his acquaintance might know much of what 'high-ranking official' knows.

There is no such idiom as "under the horse's mouth." It's just Philby's phrase.

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There is some dispute about the underlying sense of the phrase "straight from the horse's mouth." John Ayto, The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, Third Edition (2009) agrees with Stan Gipple's assertion (above) that the term comes from horse racing:

(straight) from the horse's mouth from the person directly concerned or another authoritative source. This expression refers to the presumed ideal source for a racing tip and hence of other useful information.

To similar effect, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms (1993) offers this note on "straight from the horse's mouth":

Possibly originally used for 'infallible' tips in horse-racing.

But several other reference works argue that the phrase "straight from the horse's mouth" refers not to reliable insider information metaphorically spoken by a horse (such as how confident it is that it will win an impending race), but to the mute testimony of the horse's teeth. From Martin Manser, The Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches, Second Edition (2006):

from the horse's mouth, straight From the best authority. The analogy here is to examining a horse's teeth, which reveal its age with some accuracy. Although this fact has been known for centuries (and indeed gave rise to the adage, DON'T LOOK A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH, dating to the fifth century), the expression dates only from the 1920s. "I have it straight from the mouth of a horse," wrote Christopher Morley (Kitty Foyle, 1939).

From Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997):

from the horse's mouth From a reliable source, on the best authority. {Example omitted.] Also put as straight from the horse's mouth, this expression alludes to examining a horse's teeth to determine its age and hence worth. [1920s]

From Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-like (2004):

(to get something) straight from the horse's mouth To hear something directly from the person concerned and not garbled by an intermediary. The horse itself is not doing any speaking, oof course. A horse's age can be judged best by looking at its teeth (which grow according to a strict system). So, if you are buying a horse, you do better to look at its teeth than rely on any information about its that the vendor might give you. Known by 1928. 'Meanwhile, it was a privilege. Straight from the horse's mouth into the note-book. The boys scribbled like mad'—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chap. 1 (1932). The Horse's Mouth was the title of a novel by Joyce Cary (1944).

And from Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Second Edition (1997):

straight from the horse's mouth. By examining a horse's teeth, an expert can make a good estimation of its age; a horse's first permanent teeth, for example, don't appear until it is about two and a half years old. So, despite what any crooked horse trader might have wished them to believe, informed horsemen in England stood little chance of bein g cheated about a horse's age—they had it on good authority, straight from the horse's mouth. The expression came into racetrack use in about 1830 and was part of everyday speech by 1900.

Unfortunately, Hendrickson doesn't cite any concrete instances to corroborate his claim that people used the phrase at racetracks in about 1830 and in everyday speech by 1900.

Confirming Rees's timeframe, the two earliest Google Books matches for "from the horse's mouth" are from 1928. The United States Catalog: Books in Print January 1, 1928, includes this entry:

From the horse's mouth. Mandel, G. ed. $3.35 McBride, R.M. co (1956-)

And St. George's Gazette, volume 46 has this on page 21:

Suffice it to say that the said horse must be a knowing creature, and fond of "special." This version is straight from the horse's mouth. Serjt. Wood proved that there are other methods of guiding a horse than by the reins—to wit, gripping the saddle firmly with the hands front and rear. That his hands were skinned is neither here nor there.

And on page 130:

Coming events therefore are:—Camp, on 19th August; before that, Dublin Horse Show for some; and after that, move to York, in October (latest rumour, straight from the horse's mouth).

The odd thing here is that the one of the matches from 1928 appears to be from the United States (McBride is a U.S. publisher) and the other from Britain, so we still don't have any definite idea of where the wording originated.

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