8

Unlike this questioner, I'm not asking what my phrase means (in case anyone doesn't know and can't guess, it means to talk incessantly).

But I don't know anything at all significant about donkeys' hind legs (apart from the possibility of them being metaphorically talked off).

I doubt we can find an actual origin for the phrase, but perhaps someone can come up with a plausible reason for how it came about, and/or why it continues to be used.

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    If the donkey was tethered by that leg, it could mean that the donkey would gnaw its own leg off to escape the drivel it was being forced to listen to. O:) – user37588 Feb 13 '13 at 15:25
  • Note that there are many different expressions of the form "Talk the __ off a __." – Hot Licks Jan 13 '15 at 12:54
5

The phrase originates in Ireland. Donkeys (or "asses" or "jackasses" as they are called in other parts of the world) do not naturally sit down on their rear ends. In fact, it is an extraordinary achievement to get one to do it. "Talking the hind legs off a donkey" is a literal translation of the Gaelic, which actually means "making a donkey sit down on its rear end". Thus, when a person can talk the hind legs off a donkey, they can talk so much that they could even bore a donkey into sitting down.

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    This one has the ring of truth. Got anything to back it up? – FumbleFingers May 27 '11 at 22:47
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    I very much doubt the linguistic part of this answer. Liam hasn’t been online for nearly three years, so we’re not likely to get much by way of expounding, but I have never heard any such saying in Irish, and looking through Google, Dinneen’s dictionary, and various versions in the Cora Cainte series reveals nothing whatsoever. Besides, even if it does originate as a direct translation from Irish, it doesn’t explain why talking the hind legs off the poor donkey would mean to make it sit down. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 2 '14 at 18:12
7

This is undoubtedly not the real etymology, but it's too amusing not to mention, and I doubt anybody will find anything better. From Google books (1888):

In addition to the customary halts--about every quarter of an hour--for conversation, innumerable other delays were occasioned. Three or four times the small donkey was flattened down by his burden, and his little legs spread out sideways, so that he looked like a tortoise. This disaster, as might be supposed, set up much chatter; as if they thought that because they could talk the hind legs off a jackass, they could talk them on again.

This actually suggests a plausible etymology. Imagine that your donkey is loaded, and you are ready to go somewhere. Then somebody comes up and starts talking to you, and they end up talking so long that your donkey's hind legs fall off.

  • I like it! As you say, not the real etymology, but it does suggest a possible rationale. – FumbleFingers May 7 '11 at 23:32
  • Shor: I've just done a bit of Ngramming, and sadly I have to say your postulated rationale isn't looking so good. Apparently several other things might have their legs talked off (including, bizarrely, "iron pots"), but so far as I can see, it all started with dogs. And the earliest I've come up so far is actually a pack of hounds... books.google.com/… – FumbleFingers May 7 '11 at 23:41
  • @FumbleFingers: yes, the case for my rationale is looking dim. But note that your pack of hounds is really just hind legs off a dog in disguise. Paraphrasing, what that quote is saying is that, while many people can talk the hind legs off a dog, this guy can talk all the legs off a whole pack of hounds. – Peter Shor May 8 '11 at 11:13
  • Well, maybe not so dim after all ... Here is a reference from 1858 for a horse. I also saw one for an elephant, which I think must be along the same lines as the pack of hounds -- talking the hind legs off an elephant should be much harder than doing it for a horse. – Peter Shor May 8 '11 at 11:28
  • Shor: I can't view the text of your 1858 link, but horses & hounds certainly can be 'beasts of burden', so the theory goes up a bit. Although dogs turn up pretty early, so do cast-iron pots and iron tables. I'm thinking the core imagery is of 'solid, integral parts of a whole, not normally detachable' (whimsically outrageous hyperbole excepted). – FumbleFingers May 8 '11 at 15:38
5

Dictionary discussions of the origin of 'talk the hind leg off a donkey'

Judith Siefring, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2004) asserts that the expression is of British origin:

talk the hind leg off a donkey talk incessantly. British informal In 1808 talking a horse's hind leg off was described as an 'old vulgar hyperbole' in Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, but the version with donkey was current by the mid 19th century. In 1879 Anthony Trollope mentioned talk the hind leg off a dog as an Australian variant.

Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-like (2004) has a more extended discussion of the phrase and its early variants:

(to) talk the hind leg off a donkey To talk with unflagging and wearying persistence, or to have the power to persuade through eloquent speech. A donkey is noted for its stubbornness, so it would indeed take an enormous amount of persistence or persuasion to remove its hind leg. But, interestingly, the donkey is not important – in 1808 William Cobbett used the expression involving the hind leg of a horse. There is an Australian citation from 1879 incorporating the hind leg of a dog. There are also versions citing a bird's leg (understandably not hind-leg), 'the leg off an iron pot' and, from Lancashire, 'the leg off off a brass pan' ... Described as a nannyism in Casson/Grenfell [Nanny Says (1972)] (which also has 'you'll eat the hind leg off a donkey').

Graeme Davis, Dictionary of Surrey English (2007) has this entry for "talk his dog's hind leg off":

Talk his dog's hind leg off. Proverb. 'I never, see sich a fellow to go on, he would talk his dog's hind leg off any day.' See Notes and Queries, 4 Ser. ii. 488, 591, where it is "Talk a horse's leg off.' The writer says, 'I have often heard it in Norfolk and in the Midland counties, "Talk, talk, talk; enough to talk a horse's hind leg off."'

A footnote in Davis offers this further observation:

The comparable idiom in Modern Standard English is To talk the hind leg of[f] a donkey, meaning to talk excessively and persuasively. The idea is to talk the donkey into sitting down, something which would require exceptional skills of persuasion as a donkey does not sit; the proverb seems to lose much of its force by the Surrey substitution of dog, an animal frequently commanded to sit. This idiom and its many variants are found throughout the British Isles, but seemingly not in North America.

The Notes and Queries coverage of "talking a horse's leg off" is worth reviewing as well. The subject arises with a query from T.T.W. in the November 21, 1868 issue of Notes and Queries:

"TALKING A HORSE'S LEG OFF"—In Lancashire a loquacious person, whether man or woman, is said to be able to "talk a horse's leg off." What origin can be assigned for this singular comparison?

The query drew two responses in the December 19, 1868 issue of Notes and Queries. Joseph Rix, M.D. offered this answer:

The expression is not limited to Lancashire. I have often heard it in Norfolk and in the midland counties—"Talk, talk, talk; enough to talk a horse's hind leg off."

and from P. Hutchinson:

I have not had the opportunity of hearing this remark in Lancashire, as applied to a person who is a great or incessant talker, but in the remote county of Devon the saying takes a different form. Instead of "talk" they would use the word "tell"; and I once heard a farmer say, "Dthick veller would tell a horse to death."

Regrettably, no one came forward with an explanation of the phrase's origin.


Early instances of 'talking a [creature's] hind leg off'

The earliest citation to talking an animal's leg off is the one cited above from "Summary of Politics: American States," in Cobbett's Political Register (January 9, 1808):

Mr. [Henry] Clay's description of the talkative propensity of his brethren, and Mr. [John] Randolph's of their amusements and employments, while in the House, are strikingly characteristick. They all talk ; and talk for a long while too. The old vulgar hyperbole of "talking a horse's hind leg off," if ever it be verified, will find its verification in the American Congress. Our people, at St. Stephen's, write letters too ; but I never saw any of them actually counting their money in the House ; though it is pretty generally believed, that they know how to count, whether money or noses, as well as most people.

Cobbett's is also the source of the next-earliest occurrence in Google Books search results. From "Letter to Sir Francis Burdett, Bart.," in Cobbett's Political Register (August 17, 1816):

They [King George's ministers] do not know what to do with the nation. They are at their wit's end. They cannot make people give that which they have not to give. Mr. Canning is come home very opportunely to assist his colleagues in making the useful discovery, that though a man may "talk a horse's hind leg off," he cannot talk it on again.

More or less the same wording appears in four other early publications, in 1839, 1842, 1844,and 1848. From a letter to the editor of the [Sydney, New South Wales] Australian (December 3, 1839):

Having had occasion to attend the Queanbeyan Bench of Magistrates, on the 20th instant, you may imagine my surprise, indignation, and disgust, at hearing from the lips of an elderly deaf Magistrate on the Bench (whose residence is not a hundred miles from Murrumbidgee), expressions of blasphemy ; such as "d——— your blood sir—d——— your eyes, hold your tongue:———you d———d scoundrel, you'd talk a horse's hind leg off—if you did not talk so fast I think you'd floor the witness."

From The Two Fishermen of Lynn, in Oxberry's Budget of Plays, volume 1 (1842/1844):

Comment. (drinks). They are so sweet to the palate, I could sing their praises all day, if I knew to what tune.

Shingles. 'Drops of brandy!' But, I say ; we have not seen the colour of your money yet.

Comment. You'd talk a horse's leg off. I won't part with it till I'm in commission. Shingles. Oh, very well l—My boys ; this hero of five foot mm, is desirous of directing the operations of our company.

From Henry Cockton, Sylvester Sound, the Somnambulist, third edition (1844/1849):

"Know him, sir! I think I do, rather. He's a lunatic, sir—that's my belief—a political lunatic. He'd talk a horse's hind leg off, sir; and then wouldn't be quiet. He's always contin'ally at it! Chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter—gabble, gabble, gabble! He's a wonder, sir—a political wonder."

From Onesiphorous, Ceylon and the Cingalese, serialized in The Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Political Journal (1848):

"Have you run down yet, Gus ?—do stop—there's a good fellow. What a lawyer you would have made ; you would have out-talked Thesiger, or jawed a horse's hind-leg off. Look at that snake coming out of the wood, and creeping lazily along the side of the road. Ugh! the ugly varmint."

A donkey's hind leg stands in for a horse's in 1841, although its attachment to the rest of the animal is endangered by flattery rather than by mere talk. From Charles Whitehead, Richard Savage: A Romance of Real Life, serialized in Bentley's Miscellany, volume 8 *(1841):

'I like the look of you,' said she ; 'but how you'll like us—that's a poser. There's short—he was always a n awkward one to manage ; but since that carneying Carnaby has been with us, it's as much as I can do to keep him under. That Joe—that Joe's as deep a put as here and there one. There—he flatters up that fool of a husband of mine, that he makes him believe he's one of the seven wise men ; when, if the truth must be told. he's no more brains than a broomstick. I wish we could get shut of him ; but he's bound for five long years. That fellow 'ud make a milestone believe that the coach couldn't run without it, and 'ud flatter a donkey's hind leg off — he would!'

The more conventional wording appears in "As You Were," originally in the [Adelaide, South Australia] Weekly Dispatch (March 25, 1855), reprinted in the Sydney [New South Wales] Morning Herald (June 29, 1855):

So utterly listless were they, that the two greatest questions of the session were disposed of in nearly as many hours, the burden of the debate being left by the talkative clishmaclavering bell-wethers who mugitate about the mismanagement of the war, or bleat for peace, without a single word of protest or encouragement. f protest or encouragement. Where was Mr. Lowe or Mr. Layard? What became of Messrs. Bright, and Cobden, and Gibson? Heaven knows they can, any of them, "talk a donkey's hind leg off" whenever they are in the mind for it. Why not here and now?

and again in Robert Brough, Marston Lynch, serialized in The Train (May 1857):

But Mr. Walrus says the idea is such an original and beautiful one," Lucy interposed ; "and Mr. Haresfoot will be glad to secure it from any other manager."

"Mr. Walrus can talk a donkey's hind leg off, I have no doubt—"

"What preposterous nonsense,' Clough," interrupted Markworth; "the days of miracles are passed—he could not do any thing of the kind."

The earliest Google Books match that replaces a horse with a dog is from "The Prolix Orator," in Punch, or the London Charivari (September 16, 1848):

"I fear thee, prolix Orator,/ In mercy cease, I beg;/ By all that's good I think you could/ Talk off a dog's hind-leg."

The form with off at the end—"talk a dog's hind leg off"—goes back to 1850 at least. From "How to Shut a Chatter-Box," in Punch, or the London Charivari (April 20, 1850):

Talkative Bore (to FELLOW PASSENGER*, getting out as the Train stops).* Good morning to you, Sir.

Fellow Passenger. Sir, I wish you a good day. (Aside.) Chattering fool! Confound the fellow!—I think he could talk a dog's hind leg off. {Exit.


Early instances of 'talking the hind leg off a [creature]'

The more familiar form today seems to be "talk the hind leg off a [creature]." It begins appearing in Google Books search results in 1850, and by 1865 four types of animals (none of them donkeys) had lost limbs. From Mrs. Huback, Younger Sister: A Novel, volume 3 (1850):

"You really think that would make a difference," said Mr. Howard, trying not to smile, but not very successfully.

"I have no doubt of it at all, and the blessing of being freed in some degree from the trouble of answering her is more than I could tell. That girl would talk the hind leg off a horse in no time."

From Emily Orford, serialized in Fraser's Magazine (July 1853):

'No chance of that, mum,' said Nelson. 'He was one of those fellows who would talk the hind-leg off a dog; but he would not have the courage to face a small boy or a big musquitoe. Laziness has made him run away; and when he sees the advertisement in the paper he will get frightened, and give himself up, mum.'

From Gustave Aimard, Prairie-Flower, serialized in The Welcome Guest (1861):

But the Wasp, who could have argued the hind leg off a mule, noddled his flat, brainless head, and pertinaciously continued :—

"I cannot see why you [bees] don't build your nests as we do."

And from "Rambles on Irish Rivers," in Sporting Magazine (May 1865):

How ridiculous it is for gentlemen to purchase (trout flies especially) fishing tackle from a vendor who knows no more about the fly fit for the month or the river, than a cow does about a holiday, and yet such persons, who have the gift of the gab and could talk the hind-leg off of a hedge-hog, drive a large trade by the sale of flies, any one of which would frighten more trout than it would kill by one hundred to one.

The donkey kicks in (so to speak) by 1884. From Garboard Streyke, The Sea, the River, and the Creek: A Series of Sketches of the Eastern Coast (1884):

For the bragging absurdities of fellows who never were out of five fathoms in their lives, men with " short hair and long teeth," who can drink enough to float a jolly-boat and talk the hind leg off a donkey, but shiver and turn pale when work is to be done, are by no means included in the category. What a contrast to these cockney "jaw-me-deads" is the real sailor!

And two years earlier, this near match appears in J.P. Wheldon, Beaten on the Post, Or, Joe Morton's Mercy: A Sporting Novel (1882):

Mad? I got as mad as a mad bull—but there! that Mother Burman would talk the hind-leg of a donkey off. I never came near a woman with such a power of jaw in my born days. I told 'em all about Robert Stephenson and the Rocket, and I might just as well have talked to the currants and raisins in the front shop.

Other potential victims of loquacious talkers identified by the turn of the twentieth century include elephants (1880), iron pots (July 1885), cows (1889), giraffes (1890), bullocks (November 1896), and mosquitoes (November 1900).

Trollope's 1879 citation of "talk the hind leg off a dog" is vindicated by this instance from "A Cabinet Council," in [Adelaide] South Australian Register (June 7, 1864):

Ch[ief] Sec[retary].—Try that smooth tongue of yours/ On doubtful ones. For talking plausibly/ None with the captain can compare. He'd talk/ "The hind leg off a dog"—give him but time.

The quotation marks around "The hind leg off a dog" suggests that the expression was already recognized as a set phrase in Australia by 1864. And indeed, "The Black and White List," in Melbourne Punch (April 17, 1856) has this variant:

O'BRIEN, PATRICK. Englishman. Age unknown. M.A. of Oxford. Supposed to be a man of spirit. Is known to be a man of sintimint. Considers that distinctions between the accusative and nominative cases are superfluous. Disapproves of educational qualifications. Has talked a dog's hind leg off. Is no mesmerist, but has successfully revived an old method of sending people to sleep. Thinks he could have written "Homer" as well as Shakspere did, if he had been been brought up to it. Affirms that Homer was a Dutchman. Believes in things in general and himself in particular. Politics, peculiar.

Another interesting variant is discussed in John Harland, Lancashire Legends, Traditions, Pageants, Sports &c. (1873):

When a person is much addicted to talking unnecessarily, he is often said to be able to "Talk a horse's leg off;" and there is a variation of this saying which asserts that such a one will "Talk th' leg off a brass pan."

Most of the early instances of "talk the hind leg of a donkey" and its relatives are from England or Australia, but one U.S. source claims a variant for that country. From John Farmer, Americanisms - Old & New: A Dictionary of Words, Phrases and Colloquialisms (1889):

FIVE CORNERED STUMP.—To TALK ROUND A FIVE CORNERED STUMP is a simile for loquacious talk, more or less of an exaggerated character. "To talk the hind leg off a cow" is a somewhat similar expression.

...

LOGIC CHOPPER.—One given to metaphysical reasoning; or, as Brother Jonathan's vigorous vernacular expresses it, "one who would talk the hind leg off a cow."

Elsewhere, Farmer notes that Brother Jonathan is "a cognomen of a citizen of the United States of America, in the same manner that John Bull is the designation of an Englishman."


Conclusions

The foregoing chronology offers strong circumstantial evidence that the earliest form of the expression we now know as "talk the hind leg off a donkey" was "talk a horse's hind leg off." In the examples I found, horse first appears in 1808, donkey in 1842 and dog in 1848. This renders highly unlikely any origin theory that ties the expression to particular familiar attributes of donkeys—such as stubbornness or an ingrained hostility to sitting down.

In my view, reading "talking the hind leg off [a four-legged creature]" as a way of saying "persuading [a four-legged creature] to sit down" is probably misguided. In the first place, it is noteworthy that the expression far more often than not refers to a single hind leg, not two—so the notion that talking one of the animal's hind legs off would necessarily cause the animal to sit down is not immediately obvious. Second there is the issue of how much persuasion a horse (or later, a dog) would need in order to be prevailed upon to sit. Neither animal is famously intractable, as donkeys are.

A simpler explanation of the expression would be that it originally imagined a person on horseback who could talk for so long that before he (or she) finished, the horse's leg would fall off—that is, the horse would be exhausted. I'm not convinced that this explanation is correct, but it seems less contrived than one that depends for much of its plausibility on the stubbornness of donkeys.

Finally, on a somewhat separate note, I came across another very early instance of "legs off" that involves very different particulars. From "Happiness Equally Dispensed to the High and the Low," in the Crampion Sunday Paper, reprinted in Sporting Magazine (April 1815):

"It's very odd," says the master of the house, mumbling from under the bed-clothes, "that Betty doesn't get up to let the people in; I've heard that knocker three times."—"Oh," returns the mistress, "she's as lazy as she's high:" and off goes the chamber-bell:—by which time Molly, who begins to lose her sympathy with her fellow servant in impatience with what is going on, gives her one or two conclusive digs in the side, when the other gets up, rubbing her eyes and mumbling, and hastening, and shrugging herself downstairs, opens the door with "Lord Mrs. Watson, I hope you haven't been standing here long!"—"Standing here long, Mrs. Betty! oh don't tell me; people might stand starving their legs off, before you'd put a finger out of bed."—"Oh don't say so, Mrs. Watson; I'm sure I always rises at the first knock; and there—you'll find every thing comfortable below, with "a nice hock of ham which I made John leave for you."

This example suggests that some people in the early nineteenth century may have used the "[verbing] something's leg off" in a way unrelated to anything realistically connected to the verb. In this interpretation, the leg or legs coming off is just a surprise absurdity to emphasize the speaker's foray into exaggeration.

  • This is the first time I've seen a post autoflagged "excessively long". You should win something. – MetaEd Sep 22 '17 at 22:11
  • @MetaEd: Sorry about that. Usually, a warning message comes up when I try to post a very long answer, stating that the answer has exceeded the maximum allowable character count. When that happens, I cut it back the text in the answer until it falls under the maximum number. When it didn't happen this time, I assumed that the answer was already within the limit. – Sven Yargs Sep 22 '17 at 22:15
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    No apology necessary. It's full of cool. – MetaEd Sep 22 '17 at 22:25
  • Fascinating! I don't recall thinking about this question for years, but (coincidentally?) around the time you must have been posting this (which I've only seen and read just now), I found myself wondering whether / when / how often horses sit/lie down. So by the time I did get to your point about it being ridiculous to suppose a horse could get "tired" while its rider was yapping, I was well-primed to agree. – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '17 at 17:29
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    ...anyway, not that I know anything about horses and riders, but might not some of the latter habitually spend long hours sitting on their horses gossiping? And might not one of the trusty steeds start getting impatient? Not that he'd be tired, but he might just be bored (or hungry - he can't even graze when his rider wants to use him as a chair for a few hours). Don't horses stamp one of their back legs when they're annoyed? Might one of the riders not jocularly allude to him stamping it so often and so hard that the leg was in danger of falling off? – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '17 at 17:39
2

Since we can assume this is nearly always a negative comment, I would suggest that perhaps it has to do the burden caused by the speaker. Donkeys are known and have been known to handle quite the load. This statement could imply that the burden placed upon the listener by the speaker is greater than that which a loader or traveler would place on a carrying donkey.

  • I totally agree with your negative comment point. A person thus described talks tiresomely (for too long), not persuasively. I'm less sure about linking the burden of listening to weight on a donkey's hind legs. But once the jokey asides and fruitless search for etymology are discounted, your answer seems at least as good as Peter Shor's. Plus it has the merit of brevity, so unless anything better comes along I'll probably end up taking yours even though it doesn't exactly answer my question! – FumbleFingers May 8 '11 at 23:30
1

I have no authoritative reference to offer, but online discussion here and there offers a plausible etymology: it reportedly referred to a persuasive talker, who would talk well enough to convince a donkey to go without his hind legs, and the meaning evolved over time.

Donkeys’ hind legs have nothing specific about them either, and it should be noted that lots of variants exist, including:

  • Talk the hind legs off a horse
  • Talk the bark off a tree
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    Despite the discussion in your links, to me the hind leg of a donkey phrase only means that the person talks a lot, not that they're persuasive... – psmears May 7 '11 at 15:03
  • Agree with the "much talking, not persuasive talking" meaning. I always interpreted it to mean that the person talked so much that they could be more of a burden than a donkey's heavy load. – Wayne May 7 '11 at 20:43
  • I've heard a fuller version "Talk the hind legs off a donkey and then make it walk": I've assumed that that was the original form, but it might just as well be a later elaboration. Jake Thackeray has something like "never mind donkeys, she can bore the balls off a buffalo". – Colin Fine May 7 '11 at 22:26
  • @Colin Fine: Sometimes it's hard to be sure you're not just inventing memories, but now you mention it I'm pretty sure I've heard "then make it walk" too. I'd bet any money it's a later addition though. – FumbleFingers May 7 '11 at 23:47
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    @FumbleFingers: In the "Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy, for the predecessor to Deep Thought? Something along the lines of "X could talk the back legs off a Y, but only I could then convince it to get up and take a walk"? – Andrew Grimm Sep 7 '11 at 12:53
1

Basically the donkey would run out of energy, and collapse before the person would stop talking. Meaning a donkey can pull and walk for ages, but person is still talking. Kind of like the expression donkeys years. Same as talk the bark off trees, trees live hundreds of years, so the tree would be dead and the person is still talking..

protected by tchrist Feb 22 '15 at 16:11

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