One trick pony

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 9 18:17:05 UTC 2013

On Tue, Jul 9, 2013 at 1:39 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: One trick pony
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> At 7/9/2013 01:08 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole wrote:
>>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.
>>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".

Joel wrote:
> I think in the 1905 quotation it's a pony of one trick.  "One-tent"
> and "one-clown" suggest to me a one-ring, penny-ante circus for a
> one-horse town, a circus whose pony can only produce one trick.  If
> the writer meant the circus had only one "trick pony" -- would a
> circus have any other kind of performing pony? -- I think he would
> have left out the word "trick".

Thanks for your response, Joel. Here is a cite in 1899 that describing
a circus with "ten trick-ponies".

Year: 1899
Title: Allan Dare and Robert Le Diable: A Romance
Author: Admiral Porter (David Dixon Porter)
Page: 136
Publisher: D. Appleton and Company, New York

[Begin excerpt]
Forty men and women followed on variegated horses, and in the rear
came ten trick-ponies, a cage of performing monkeys, and several huge
dogs as large as bears.
[End excerpt]

In this example, I believe the author is indicating that the number of
ponies is ten and not the number of tricks. This description probably
referred to a fancy circus. It is possible that elaborate circuses had
multiple trick ponies.

If a circus has a single solitary trick pony then it was a small and
unremarkable circus. That is the interpretation I am suggesting for
consideration. Perhaps there is an ambiguity.


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