Why Is It Called a Charley Horse? – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

We’ve got another idiom breakdown to analyze! On the plate today is a horseshoe, but not the kind you’re thinking of. We’re talking about charley horses, those sudden, intense muscle cramps you get in the middle of the night that make you feel like a bucking bronco. Are you ready to saddle up and ride into the wild west of English language phrases?

Is It Charlie Horse or Charley Horse?

Charley Horse vs Charlie Horse Ngram
Charley horse and charlie horse usage trend.

First things first, let’s clear up some spelling confusion I often see when people write about this painful cramp. Despite the temptation to use charlie, the standard spelling for this expression is actually charley horse. But you’ll still see both variations in use because, well, English is a quirky language.

Charley Horse Meaning Explained

Why Is It Called a Charley Horse Idiom Origin Meaning

So, what exactly is a charley horse? No, it’s not a horse named Charley, although that would be a cute name for one. A charley horse is a sudden, involuntary muscle spasm or intense leg cramp, usually common in the legs and feet. These cramps can be incredibly painful, sometimes strong enough to wake you from a sound sleep, grasping at your calve like a lunatic.

Fun fact: The best way to get rid of a charley horse is to stretch your calve and point your toes upward.

Is Charley Horse Capitalized?

Nope! You’d think so, but I promise you don’t have to worry about capitalizing the word charley here.

What Is a Charley Horse Called in the UK?

Our friends across the pond have a different term for this abrupt muscle cramp in the calf muscles. In the UK, they typically refer to it as a cramp or leg cramp. Doesn’t sound as fun, though.

Charley Horse Origin and Etymology

The origin of charley horse is a little muddled because there’s more than one theory. However, the most popular theory is that it originated in the 1880s from horse racing and what you’d call an old, forgotten horse.

Another story states that the term was first used to describe a lame horse named Charley that pulled the roller at the Chicago White Sox ballpark.

On the other hand, another theory gives credit to a baseball pitcher of the 1880s named Charley Radbourne, also known as Old Hoss, who suffered a muscle cramp during a baseball game.

But none of these are confirmed, so it remains a bit of an etymological mystery.

Charley Horse Examples in a Sentence

Why Is It Called a Charley Horse Idiom Origin Meaning 1
  • After a long run, I woke up in the middle of the night with a wicked charley horse.
  • She had to pause her yoga practice due to a sudden charley horse in her calve.
  • “Every time I swim, I get a charley horse,” he complained.
  • She tried to stand up, but a charley horse made her wince and forced her to sit back down.
  • The football player had to be taken off the field because of a painful charley horse.
  • Be sure to hydrate during exercise to prevent a charley horse.
  • My leg cramp was so severe it felt like the worst charley horse ever.
  • I was disturbed by a charley horse during my peaceful sleep last night.
  • “I can’t move; I’ve got a charley horse,” she winced.
  • Proper nutrition and hydration can help prevent those unpleasant charley horses.

Stay Hydrated!

So, that’s your crash course guide to understanding the not-so-equine charley horse. Whether you’re dealing with a painful leg cramp or simply striving to understand the strange phrases the English language has to offer, this knowledge will keep you from feeling like you’re always on the wrong end of a bucking bronco.