Was "a horse of a different color" a common phrase around the time of The Wizard of Oz?

I put this in General Questions because even though it pertains to a certain movie, it is asking for a factual answer. May need to be moved to Cafe Society; I don’t know.

When Dorothy and her friends are trying to enter the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, the gatekeeper originally denies them entry. Then they mention that Glinda gave her the ruby slippers. The gatekeeper says, “That’s a horse of a different color! Come on in!”

They soon find out that Emerald City has a literal Horse of a Different Color which changes color from red to green to blue to yellow and so on.

Was “a horse of a different color” a common phrase around the time that The Wizard of Oz was released? I’ve never heard it out of this context, but I was born long afterwards.

The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. I don’t know if the phrase was used in the book. The movie came out in 1939. There is a bit of a peak in the phrase’s usage in the 1930s so it may have been somewhat known before the movie.

It was definitely in use when the book was written- Anthony Trollope’s Last Chronicles of Barset (1867): “What did you think of his wife? That’s a horse of another colour altogether.”

Which is a play on a Shakespearean metaphor; “a horse of that color”.

Nope. (The text is online, at Project Gutenberg, so it’s easy to search.)

It also occurs to me that “seeing a man about a horse” was probably a rural catch-all for doing any kind of business.

According to my ngram search, “horse of a different colour/color” began rising in frequency after about 1905 and was common by 1939, peaking in 1946.

That really seems to indicate that The Wizard of Oz itself drove the popularity of the phrase. Note that “colour” with a superfluous u didn’t have as strong a relative peek in 1939-40, perhaps since the UK was in the middle of a war when Oz was released there in 1940.

The OED has a US citation from 1798:

1798 Aurora (Philadelphia) 27 Aug. Whether any of them may be induced…to enter into the pay of King John I. [ i.e. President Adams] is ‘a horse of another colour’.

In fact, in the book Emerald City wasn’t green at all. All the residents wore green glasses and before the doorkeeper let the four companions in, he locked glasses onto their heads – Toto got a pass. At one point Dorothy’s glasses slipped and she noticed things were only gray before she adjusted them back in place.

Also, in the fourth book, when a cousin’s cab-horse, Jim, winds up in Oz he’s regarded as a curiosity because, while there is an animated sawhorse, there are no regular horses in Oz.

I don’t know how this fits in with the Oz as populist allegory meme.

FWIW my parents were born in the early 1930s and grew up in suburban Chicago. By then Chicago had just about zero horses of any color, much less multiple changing colors.

In the early 1960s when I was little up through their final days decades later that was a standard phrase they both used regularly. Though less and less as time went along.

When the horse is actually seen in the movie, the line is “He’s the horse of a different color you’ve heard tell about.” - a direct reference to what was then a common phrase

So the phrase had become quite common by the time the movie came out - and the movie couldn’t have much to do with the phrase’s popularity since the movie itself wasn’t hugely popular when it was initially released.

Similar to my experiences - same time/area (tho I wasn’t a rich suburban brat! ;)).

Not sure where I first heard it, but as a kid I really liked jokes and puns, and I recall a sense of seeing the movie and appreciating the visual pun - which suggests to me a knowledge of the phrase before I saw the movie. Don’t know that my Ps used the phrase often, but it certainly was something that was instantly understandable and meant something specific.

Just wondering, what other phrases would you use INSTEAD OF HoaDC?

Brief google turned up:
-another can of worms
-a different tune
-different breed of cat
-a different kettle of fish…

Pretty sure I’ve heard the “kettle of fish”, but not as often as “horse”.

To clarify … My parents born in the 1930s grew up as Chicago suburbanites. They used the phrase a lot. I grew up in the 1960s in SoCal suburbia. I heard the phrase a lot from them. Darn few horses in 1960s SoCal either. :wink:

Ooh - SoCal burbs! Was it really like the Wonder Years? :wink:

The “horse of a different color” phrase derives its rhetorical power from the fact that there are, in truth, no horses of a different color.

I can give a mathematical proof by induction that all horses are the same color.

No peeking until you've given it a serious try yourself!

To prove that all horses in any set of n horses are all the same color:

First, arrange all the horses in a straight line in front of you. (For clarity, let’s say this line of horses is oriented such that, from your point of view, the line has a “left” end and a “right” end.)

Now, if you have just one horse ( n = 1 ), it is clear that all the horses in the line are of one color (there being just one horse there).

Now consider the case for a line of n > 1 horses. We wish to show that if any set of n horses are all the same color, then any set of ( n + 1 ) horses are all the same color.

So line up your ( n + 1 ) horses as described above. By assumption, the left-most n horses are all the same color. But likewise, the right-most n horses are all the same color. Thus, by transitivity of equality of color, all ( n + 1 ) horses are the same color.


This proof may seem cute, but I believe it actually contains a valuable lesson about doing proofs by induction.

BTW, there’s also a corollary: There is no such thing as a unicorn.


Assume there is a unicorn.

Now, that’s a horse of another color!

Which he have just proved does not exist.


My mother was born 1928, grew up in Kennett Square, PA surrounded by mushroom growers. As a young woman she moved to Providence, RI to go to art school, and started hanging out with writers and [gasp] POETS. She was fond of bad poetry and worse puns. She used the phrase “that’s a horse of a different garage” - but probably mostly to be contrary and obtuse. Just like her kids.

My Mom used that variant too. I never asked for or got an explanation as to why.

I wonder if that wasn’t something some comic on some radio show humorously butchered back in the 1940s and it stuck.

Some very quick Googling suggests it’s a variant used by lots of people, but I wasn’t able to find anything that looked like an original attribution.

This is the first time for me to hear this expression. . . should I sue my parents?