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While investigating a recent EL&U question (What does "throw a wrinkle" mean?), I came across the unusual expression “put a wrinkle on [or in] one’s horn [or horns].” I have three questions about this phrase:

  1. Where did it originate?

  2. What is its literal meaning? (That is, what does actually “putting a wrinkle on a horn” entail? Does it mean wrenching an animal's—say, a bull's or a ram's—horn out of shape? Or something else?)

  3. What is its figurative meaning?

My initial impression is that the phrase figuratively means something like "throw one for a loop," but that inference is based entirely on the context supplied by the three examples given below.


Preliminary Research

In an Ngram-based Google Books search of the years 1700–1900, the earliest instance of this idiomatic phrase occurs in Thomas Halliburton, The Clockmaker; or The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville (1838), where a Yankee-dialect speaker is being "quoted":

Yes, said he, so I have often heerd tell ; and I have heerd, too, that the new ones [packet ships] won't lay to, and the old ones won't scud ; grand chance in a gale for feller that, ain't it? One tumbles over in the trough of the sea, an the other has such great solid bulwarks, if she ships a sea, she never gets rid of it but by goin' down. Oh, you British are up to every thing ! it wouldn't be easy to put a wrinkle on your horns, I know.

The same odd expression appears in Emma Robinson, The City Banker; or Love and Money (1856):

"I must do it gratis," his attendants heard him at last mutter to himself. "But 'taint worth much more than thank you, now he has all the dockyments. Let some respectable citizens, gen'lemen, come and take my last dying confession. It'll put a wrinkle or two in their horns, I'll warrant them ! But it's come to that, and I'll do the Old 'Un himself, at last, arter all, and repent !"

And in R. M. Ballantyne, The Gorilla Hunters: A Tale of the Wilds of Africa (1861):

“ Look here, you naturalist, and I'll put a wrinkle on your horn. Yonder hangs a magnificent bunch of fruit that I very much desire to possess.”

Wikipedia says that Halliburton was a native of Nova Scotia, and Ballantyne a Scot who lived for seven years (between the ages of 16 and 22) in Canada. Robinson seems to have lived her entire life in England.

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Figurative Meaning

According to the website Words and Phrases from the Past the expression means

  • a valuable hint (to tell or give information)

It matches the third example

Look here, you naturalist, and I'll put a wrinkle on your horn [I'll give you a hint]. Yonder hangs a magnificent bunch of fruit that I very much desire to possess

A second variation I found was "Well, that's a new wrinkle in my horn"

We love to get comments about the column. If the readers have heard the expressions that we share they tell us so. But if they haven't, we are sometimes answered with, "Well, that's a new wrinkle in my horn."

  • Which is self-explanatory, a sort of I learnt something new today, something else to add to my collection, a novel thought. This fits quite well with the second quote

Let some respectable citizens, gen'lemen, come and take my last dying confession. It'll put a wrinkle or two in their horns, I'll warrant them !

i.e It will surprise/shock them = something new.

Source: Bittersweet

Online Etymology Dictionary reports,

wrinkle (n.)[...]that of "idea, device, notion" (especially a new one) is from 1817.


Why Wrinkles?

From a book entitled Ellis's Husbandry: Abridged and Methodized (1772) there is the following excerpt which confirms @josh61 answer that farmers read the wrinkles on cow horns in order to guess their age, just as many do with the rings on a tree trunk.

This is a surer sign than the wrinkles in a cow's horn, by which we guess at their age; because they seldom have more than one wrinkle or circle, till five years old, and that sooner or later, according to the time of her calving; but an oak, ash, fir, hazel, and most other woods, shew these marks at three or four years old, when they are about the bigness of one's thumb

Here is an excerpt from the Australian Enquiry Book (1897) by Mrs Lance Rawson

To tell the Age of a Cow
At two years of age you will find a wrinkle at the base of the cow's horns, but it is >not fully developed till she turns three. When five years old another wrinkle will form, and after five she will get a new one each year of her life.


Every time you learn something new your brain wrinkles

There is the myth that the brain forms new wrinkles every time new information is stored. Many believe that the more wrinkles the human brain has, the more intelligent that person is. It's only recently that science has proven false that conviction, but it is one that still persists even today, like a popular old wive's tale.

Q. What do brain wrinkles have to do with how smart you are?

A. A lot of wrinkles seems to have more to do with what makes humans smarter than lower animals than with what might have made Einstein smarter than you. [...] Human intelligence appears to be related to the branching of brain cells and the formation of complex links between them, not the shape of the platform where the links take place.

I manage to unearth a very early reference that confirmed people believed every new wrinkle represented a new understanding; this folklore predates Etymonline's estimation by a sizeable ninety-three years, and is found in Jonathan Swift's tale The Wonderful Wonder of Wonders, written in 1720

snippet with "new wrinkle"

http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/31/science/q-a-brain-folds.html


Earlier Example of the Idiom

The earliest written example that combined the words new, wrinkle, and horn is in The Medico-chirurgical Review, 1830, New York

enter image description here

Note the variation, to add a wrinkle to the horn (of knowledge)

  • The instance from the February 1830 issue of The Medico-Chirurgical Review is an excellent find, Mari-Lou A—and it beats my earliest match by eight years. Because the reviews are unsigned, I can't tell whether this particular wording came from England or from the United States; but it appears from this summary that the Review may have been published first in London. A collection from 1844 shows the Review being simultaneously published in London and New York. More complications! – Sven Yargs Oct 30 '14 at 23:15
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Apparently it was well known what cattle horns looked like in growing.

From the Times-Picayune reference (April 24, 1888):

The emperor of [R]ussia presented the [E]mpress on her 40th birthday with a diamond necklace containing forty stones one for each year of her life. If all the diamond ornaments worn by the women in this country were constructed on this principle it would be bad for the diamond business. Jewelers' Weekly. Let it be understood that each diamond in every woman's necklace represented one year of time, like a wrinkle on the horn of a cow, and the number would rarely go above thirty.

Like Josh, I found an 1839 source (The Citizen: A Monthly Journal: Life in a Steamer):

column from a book with writing

"When a man acquires a new idea, he has got a new wrinkle on his horn..."

I take that to mean something to older and wiser, in that if a new wrinkle comes every year on the cattle horns, new ideas come as we age; or to teach someone something new.

  • Every answer that has appeared here so far contributes something useful to the discussion. I'm glad you added yours. I feel a little embarrassed that I didn't know about the annual additional wrinkling of cows' horns, given that my grandfather raised cattle on his farm in Texas, but my excuse is that he raised (hornless) Aberdeen Angus. – Sven Yargs Oct 30 '14 at 22:45
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Have a wrinkle in one's horn: (1840 - from The Dublin Magazine - Volume 1 - page 375)

In the extract above they say that the origin of the expression comes from US where cattlemen used to tell the age of a cow counting the rings that formed at the base of their horns ( one a year). This has given rise to the expression referring to people meaning that they have a new idea in mind.

It appears that 'a wrinkle on one's horn' meaning a 'new idea in one's mind' was used in different expressions such as 'put a wrinkle on somebody's horn'.

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Taking my cue from Josh61’s helpful comment (which has since become a full-fledged answer), I revisited The Clockmaker (1839), and found that it offers an explanation of the phrase’s literal and figurative meaning, in a dialogue between Sam Slick and a Scot of the border country, immediately after Slick has stretched out the fingers of his right hand “until they represented the radii of a circle” and then “applied the thumb to the extremity of [his] nose, in a horizontal position”:

“Did you ever see the like o’ that,” said the puzzled Scot to himself, “and wha is he?” “A wrinkle on the horn,” said I, again applying the thumb to its old signal-staff, the nose, “and I thank you for the hint.”

“A wrinkle on the horn?” slowly repeated my astonished companion; “puir body, he is daft, as sure as the world.”

“No, my man,” said I, “not daft, but wiser. In America, for you must know I come from that far-off country, we tell the ages of our cattle by examining their horns, at the root of which, at the end of three years, there appears a small ring or wrinkle, and each succeeding year is marked by another. This has given rise to a saying, when a man acquires a new idea, that he has got ‘another wrinkle in his horn,’—do you take?”

The "horn" in the first paragraph is slang for nose, but Slick soon connects that notion of horn with the actual cow's horn he mentions later in the dialogue. Also from The Clockmaker:

P.S. — l will give you a wrinkle on your horn that's worth havin'. Should our great gun be absent and you left in London, recollect we do as the British do, give no instructions we can help ; write what must be wrote so it will read any way, and leave subordinates to incur all responsibility of actin’ and readin’.

And from James Johnson, A Tour in Ireland (1844):

Then George Wynder, listen to me, remember what I say, and I will put another wrinkle in your horn.

A much later match appears in the Staunton [Virginia] Spectator (February 20, 1895):

A certain good church brother in speaking of the prosperity of a nearby neighbor of his, said: "He has twenty-five hens, and gets from 3to 4 dozen eggs per day." The crowd wondered if some of the hens produced 2 or 3 eggs per day, or how, but no one asked him to explain, and be went his way in all his glory, while the crowd unanimously accorded him another wrinkle in his horn.

A search of the Library of Congress site turns up numerous mentions of wrinkles in horns and (sometimes) indications of their meaning. For example, from another adventure of Sam Slick, reprinted in the Maumee [Ohio] Express (March 17, 1838):

Now says the Major, I’ll give you, Slick, a new wrinkle on your horn. Folks aint thought nothin of, unless they live at the Treemomnt [sic] ; its all the go. Do you dine at Peep’s tavern every day, and off hot foot to the Treemont, and pick your teeth there on the streets steps, and folks will think you dine there.

From a poem titled “The Old Cow” in the [Edenton, North Carolina] Fisherman & Farmer (March 29, 1889):

I look at you with sad regret

And mourn to think we ever met;

For every wrinkle in your horn

Proclaims of wasted hay and corn.

From the Monroe City [Missouri] Democrat (February 12, 1903):

St. Louis has added another wrinkle to its horn of prosperity by becoming the great coon skin market of the world.

And from the “Out of the Ginger Jar” column in The Adair County [Kentucky] News (December 7, 1910):

Mr. Cityman is hereby informed in response to his Inquiry, that the wrinkles on a cow’s horn are not caused by trouble or worry.

Stepping away from Google Books and into the turmoil of CattleToday.com’s Q&A Boards, I encountered this posting dated December 28, 2005, by a participant named Caustic Burno, from the Big Thicket area of East Texas:

No Dun we have just been over some of the same rough trails puts a wrinkle in your horn makes you remember.

So it appears that equating wrinkles in a horn with experience and acquired wisdom remains current in at least one part of the United States.

I haven’t been able to find any earlier references to putting a wrinkle on one’s horn than those in Halliburton’s Sam Slick stories of 1838, but I suspect that as a folk expression it goes back considerably farther than that.


Addendum (July 5, 2018)

Rural awareness that cows add a new wrinkle to their horns each year is probably ancient. Notice of it appears in "An Essay on a Registry for Titles of Lands" in A Collection of State Tracts, Publish'd During the Reign of King William III, volume 2 (1706):

I have seen an original Mortgage of one Skin [that is, sheet or page], bred up by a Scrivener (in six Years) to one and twenty, by assigning it to every Year, and adding one Skin to every Assignment by Recitals and Covenants. As Cows after three Years old, have one Wrinkle added to each Horn for every Year after, which shews their Age: And I am inform'd that one Deed of sixty Skins was heav'd out of a Conveyancy Office the other day.

William III reigned from 1689 to March 8, 1702, so at the latest this essay dates back to the earliest years of the eighteenth century.

Clearly, there was ample time for "put a wrinkle on one's horn" to emerge as a metaphorical folk saying, as it appears to be in the review of two books on the subject of fever in The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Practical Medicine (February 1830), cited in Mari-Lou A's excellent answer:

As soon as the mornings get a little finer, and the evenings longer, we will invite Dr. Smith to a strict examination of a few patients at the Fever Hospital ; and if we find them presenting the same phenomena at these two periods, we shall cheerfully admit that the worthy author has added a wrinkle to the horn of our knowledge.

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My take on this is one's nose is their horn. So if somebody was 'to put a wrinkle in one's horn' they would have said something or acted in such a way that one would screen their nose up in disgust. Or, adoration, perhaps.

  • Which raises the question, what does “screen their nose up” mean? I’m not familiar with that phrase. Please do not respond in comments; edit your answer to make it clearer and more complete. – Scott Jul 9 '18 at 9:18

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