One trick pony

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 10 20:45:05 UTC 2013

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces "one-trick pony" to
1980. (OED has a solid cite in 1950.)

Title: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
Edition: Eleventh
Year: 2004
Page: 867
(Google Books Preview)

[Begin excerpt]
one-trick pony n (1980) : one that is skilled in only one area; also :
one that has success only once
[End excerpt]

American Slang suggests that the slang expression emerged in the 1990s.

Title: American Slang
Edition: Fourth
Editors: Barbara Ann Kipfer, Robert L. Chapman
Year: 2008
Page: 356
(Google Books Preview)

[Begin Excerpt]
one-trick pony n phr A person having a single accomplishment : As he
proved during exquisite ballads and mid-tempo tunes, he's no one-trick
pony/ For years, Twentieth Century Fund has been known to investors as
a one-trick pony (1990s+)
[End excerpt]

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has no entry under "one".
The terms "trick" and "pony" are too late in the alphabet for
publication in Volumes I or II.. Maybe JL has something in his files.

The OED entry mentioned both "one trick pony" and "one trick horse".
Here is an instance of "one trick horse" in 1882. Once again this
phrase is potentially ambiguous. I hypothesize that "one" is modifying
"trick horse", i.e. the phrase refers to a single horse able to
perform tricks.

The context is a comparison between the impressive circus of Barnum
and other less impressive shows. The emphasis is on the disparity in
the number of animals.

Date: June 30, 1882
Newspaper: Caledonian
Article title: The Great Barnum and London Show
Page: 2
Location: St. Johnsbury, Vermont

[Begin excerpt]
If any other show in the country has even a single giraffe, it has no
more. Barnum has ten in the tented field, and an equal number in
reserve. With other shows a few ordinary elephants—at the most five or
six—make a "huge-herd." Barnum has 22, and among them,


thought by many of the leading scientists to be the last of the
mammoths, and certainly the most tremendous beast known to exist. Then
there is besides the $300,000 baby elephant, born at Bridgeport,
February, 1882. Where they introduce one trick horse in the ring, he
fills it with just 20 thoroughbred stallions. While they never exhibit
any notable animals in parade, he throws open to the public 16 cages
of rare wild beast's, has, led and driven, as many more in procession
[End excerpt]


On Tue, Jul 9, 2013 at 8:46 PM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: One trick pony
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Tue, Jul 9, 2013 at 2:17 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at
>> wrote:
>> ten trick-ponies
> Ten one-trick ponies? Ten ponies of random numbers of tricks?
> You never know.
> --
> -Wilson
> -----
> All say, "How hard it is that we have to die!"---a strange complaint to
> come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
> -Mark Twain
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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