One trick pony

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 9 17:08:37 UTC 2013

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry with a first citation in
1905. Perhaps the 1905 cite should be re-examined. See comment below.

[Begin excerpt from OED]

one-trick pony   n. (also one-trick horse) colloq. (orig. and chiefly
U.S.)  (a) U.S. a pony which has been taught one trick, esp. one
performing in a circus (now rare);  (b) a person or thing specializing
in only one area, having only one talent, or of limited ability.

1905   Oregon Pioneer Assoc. 32nd Ann. Reunion 264   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.

1950   R. Franken From Claudia to David 143   ‘I'll make another
basket,’ said Claudia. ‘I'm a one- trick pony.’

[End excerpt from OED]

While searching for examples of "one trick pony" (hyphenation varies)
an important question emerged.

Does "one" modify "trick" or does "one" modify "trick pony"? In the
modern phrase "one" modifies "trick". However, in the 1905 citation
above I suspect that "one" modifies "trick pony". Note that within the
sentence: "one" modifies "tent" and "one" modifies "clown".

Here is a link into the Google Books database that points to the text
of the 1905 citation:

The 1950 citation looks good, and it does antedate the 1980 use.

"'s 21st Century Lexicon" has an etymological note that
claims the phrase "one-trick pony" was in use in mid-1800s. But I do
not know what citation is being used to support this claim.

[Begin excerpt]
Main Entry: one-trick pony
Part of Speech: n
Definition: any person or group with only one discernable trait,
talent, or area of expertise
Example: That actor proved to be a one-trick pony.
Etymology: from act in Cuffling Cousins Circus of mid-1800s
[End excerpt]

The questioner addressed linguists, so I should note that I am not a linguist.

On Tue, Jul 9, 2013 at 10:18 AM, Baker, John <JBAKER at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Baker, John" <JBAKER at STRADLEY.COM>
> Subject:      Re: One trick pony
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> It was popularized by the motion picture One Trick Pony, written by and starring Paul Simon, which was released in 1980.  I don't immediately see any earlier uses of the phrase (I didn't look very hard) or know if Simon has indicated whether the usage was original.
> John Baker
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Donald McCaig
> Sent: Tuesday, July 09, 2013 9:56 AM
> Subject: One trick pony
> Dear Linguists,
> When did this phrase first appear?
> Donald McCaig
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