Friday, April 1, 2011

Want: Horse Hockey

I’ve known a lot of horse people in my life, but I don’t get the animal’s appeal: they’re big, smelly, and vaguely frightening, and I’ve never gotten over feeling cheated by the fact that they don’t actually talk. (Damn you, Mr. Ed.) But for Youman and his contemporaries, horses weren’t a laughing matter: expensive to both buy and keep, they were status symbols that offered serious travel and productivity benefits. Buying or selling a horse was a transaction you didn’t want to screw up, and with the founding of Consumer Reports some 61 long years away, what was the average American to do? Read the Dictionary of Every-day Wants, clearly.

Even knowing that a horse was a major purchase in 1872, today’s entry comes as a bit of a shock. A casual scan of the Dictionary leaves you with the feeling that A. E. Youman was a decent guy. He’s generally a proponent of kindness to animals and children, doesn’t dismiss women or their work as unimportant, and is a tireless advocate for his readers. His calm, straightforward approach to life and its obstacles must have been a source of comfort for the (potentially panicked) folks consulting his book.

But when it comes to buying and selling horses, Youman’s Dudley Do-right facade begins to crack.

To be frank, I don’t have a lot of facts to bring to the table on this entry: my knowledge of barnyard animals is largely limited to the fact that they’re often good to eat. I do, however, know the difference between right and wrong, cultural (temporal?) relativism be damned.

Having watched approximately 200 hours worth of McLeod’s Daughters, Australia’s favorite sheep opera, I can say with some confidence that “drenching” the horse as described in “To Cover Up the Heaves” means putting metal shotgun pellets into the horse’s stomach by way of a tube inserted down its throat.

And Youman saves what might be the most upsetting procedure for last—making a horse look young by “puncturing the skin over the cavity [above its eye] and filling through a tube by air from the mouth, and then closing the aperture, when the brow will become smooth—for a time.”

Advice on avoiding dirty tricks would certainly have been helpful to readers of the Dictionary. But I’m not sure that’s what this entry provides: instead, it seems packed with details for conning people out of what they rightfully deserve, and hurting animals in the process. With these techniques you could make a not-so-great horse fabulous, and a fabulous horse not-so-great—or make them look that way long enough for a sale, anyway.

Maybe it’s hypocritical for a meat eater to be repelled by treating an animal like this: just because I didn't kill the chicken I ate for dinner doesn’t mean that I’m not culpable for its death. But this is just dishonest meanness.

Treating people and horses this way doesn’t seem characteristic of kindly grandpa Youman, and I have only the tiniest sliver of hope that his intent was truly to prepare his readers, not help them behave badly. It was a rough world out there, after all. Take a look at these entries for the word “Jockey” in the 1892 Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language.