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What is the etymology of the phrase "one trick pony"?

Can ponies do tricks?

Oxford doesn't any etymology info. Wiktionary doesn't provide any info either besides the definition:

A performing animal (especially a pony) that knows only one trick. (idiomatic, by extension) A person or group noteworthy for only a single achievement, skill, or characteristic.

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What is the etymology of the phrase "one trick pony"?

A pony that only knows one trick.

Can ponies do tricks?

Yes. Especially in circuses.

Indeed the OED gives for the literal definition "esp. one performing in a circus" which strikes me as amusing; let's make sure a pedant who finds a one-trick pony outside of a circus doesn't prove us wrong!

Anyway, their first quotation is:

Among the earliest of mundane things remembered are the resplendent red shirts of the volunteer firemen, conspicuous in every Fourth of July parade; the marvels that were seen at the first one-tent, one-clown, one-trick-pony, pioneer Oregon circus.

This from the Oregon Pioneer Association 32nd Ann. Reunion published in 1905. While there may be a degree of figurative use (it would be pedantry to correct them if you found out that this circus had in fact had two clowns, and didn't actually have a pony at all), it is still using "one-trick-pony" to refer to a small horse that has been taught a single trick.

Now, kids today with their games-consoles and their boy-bands and their player-pianos might not be particularly impressed by circus ponies (though circuses do still have ponies and horses that do tricks), and so we don't really have much call to cast aspersions on actual circus ponies that lack versatility, and so the figurative use is now much more common than the literal, but the literal sense is the origin of the figurative, and it really is as simple as being a pony that knows one, but only one, trick.

  • Etymonline also has an etymology in line with this: "The figurative one-trick pony is 1897, American English, in reference to circus acts." – Håkan Lindqvist Jun 7 '14 at 15:32
  • @HåkanLindqvist indeed. The OED quote is useful though because for once it isn't figurative, and hence shows it being used in regard to an actual pony that knows a trick, from which the figurative cases stem. – Jon Hanna Jun 7 '14 at 15:40
  • Jon, I found a similar quote but published earlier in 1875 (original). "In the procession of events that go shifting by, among the earliest of mundane things remembered are the resplendent red shirts of the volunteer firemen, conspicuous in every Fourth of July parade; the marvels that were seen at the first one-tent, one-clown, one-trick-pony,pioneer Oregon circus;" -Transactions of the Oregon Pioneer Association – Third News Jun 11 '14 at 19:08
  • @ThirdNews good find! Clearly the quote from the 32nd Annual Reunion was itself a direct quote from the time they were commemorating. – Jon Hanna Jun 11 '14 at 20:16
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A literal and figurative context:

In Townsville I met again the Fitzgeralds and their circus. There were three brothers—Jack, Minister of Health in New South Wales; Dan, the ring master, and Tom, who roamed the earth seeking new "acts" and animals. They were all born at the old mining camp of Tambaroora outside Bathurst, and they were circus people while they were yet in short trousers. Their circus had grown from one trick pony —Commodore— until it was an establishment big enough for anywhere in the world; with Zapf, from Hagenbecks, as the lion and tiger man, and a herd of elephants. -Naught to thirty-three, by Randolph Bedford. [1944]

The quoted reference refers to a pony that can do one trick, and the figurative reference "roamed the earth seeking new "acts" (also known as 'tricks').

A circus act is : "A set of similar tricks that are carried out by one performer or a group of human or animal performers in certain sequence within a given period; the said tricks are designed to implement any idea, feeling and situation into a circus image having specific effect."

  • This does not answer the question. – tchrist Jun 11 '14 at 19:29
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    That refers to "one trick pony", i.e. a single pony that can perform at least one trick, rather than to "a one-trick pony", a pony that can perform only one trick. – Matt Gutting Jun 11 '14 at 20:03
  • @Matt: I don't know the rest of the context, but I'm inclined to give the author (and Third News) the benefit of what little doubt there is, and accept that it's a witty "double entendre". I think it's really just a matter of asking whether the writer discarded having a or being a before one trick pony, or whether (as seems likely to me) he dropped "both" of them for the sake of a witticism. As Third News says, that leaves us with a "literal and figurative context". – FumbleFingers Jun 11 '14 at 20:51

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