One-Horse Town – Meaning & Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

American English is full of idiomatic phrases that consist of words used to express a figurative description rather than a literal meaning. They are fun to use but can be quite frustrating and confusing to anyone unfamiliar with what they refer to.

One-horse town is an excellent example of an idiomatic phrase that has changed meaning through the centuries. Once a literal expression, it quickly took on a broader, figurative meaning but is now specific to how one might describe a small town or city.

Let’s learn about its origins and use in the article below.

What Is the Meaning of One-Horse Town?

One Horse Town Meaning Origin

One-horse town is an idiomatic expression that refers to an extremely small town, often described as having a slower pace of life, offering few amenities, and having little to no excitement. It can also be used to describe the feel or vibe put off by an area, even if it is not small in size.

One-Horse Town Examples in a Sentence

  • The bed and breakfast we stopped at was located in a small one-horse town, providing us the quiet feel we had been searching for.
  • Despite the hustle and bustle of New York, it was something of a one-horse town when it came to media design in the mid-1900s, and I was able to make my name before the big advertising agencies moved in.
  • She was exhausted by the one-horse town she had grown up in and couldn’t wait to move on and see what else the world could offer her.

Is One-Horse Town Hyphenated?

One Horse Town vs One Horse Town Ngram
One-horse town and one horse town usage trend.

One-horse town is always hyphenated as one-horse is a compound modifier. This means multiple-word adjectives are placed before a noun—in this case, the word town.

Some people do spell it without the hyphen, which technically makes it grammatically incorrect. However, the incorrect spelling is still recognizable and somewhat acceptable, albeit cringe-worthy to grammarians.

One-Horse Town Origins

The term one-horse was once used much more widely in reference to various things. In the 1700s, one-horse literally meant a device powered by one horse, such as a one-horse carriage or one-horse plow. One hundred years later, one-horse came to mean something small, insignificant, and with few amenities, such as a one-horse hotel. Such as in this example written by Charles Dicken in his publication All the Year Round, published in 1871:

‘One horse’ is an agricultural phrase, applied to anything small or insignificant, or to any inconsiderable or contemptible person: as a ‘one-horse town,’ a ‘one-horse bank,’ a ‘one-horse hotel,’ a ‘one-horse lawyer’, [etc.]

This usage has fallen out of style except in the phrase one-horse town, which is chiefly an American idiom. Generally, it is considered a mild insult to call someplace a one-horse town unless used in context to describe something small.

Let’s Review

Even though the use of the adjective one-horse used to be applied to various things to describe their insignificance or smallness, the idiomatic phrase one-horse town is the more modern, popular expression used in a somewhat insulting manner when referring to a location that offers very little excitement or amenities.

You may still see one-horse applied as a compound modifier to nouns other than town, but it is generally rare and not often used.