The Great Charley Horse

I have a problem.

Or perhaps I should say a mystery.  At any rate, I am trying to track down the origin of a linguistic oddity and I could use some help.

The back story goes like this: Sometime ago I was talking to a friend of mine from the Bronx and we somehow or other became aware that we were using a old-fashioned but familiar phrase differently.  It was one of those phrases that we all learned as children and rarely have any reason to use.  It was Charley Horse.

Turns out that to her a Charley Horse is the sore muscle you get from over-exercising whereas to me it is a cramp in a muscle, either naturally occurring or artificially induced by a sharp blow from a helpful playmate.

It goes without saying that both of us knew that our own definition was correct while the other’s was just plain wrong.

As dictionary-type people, this resulted in a mutual rush to the Random House Unabridged.  Being a gentleman, I was, of course, not in any way triumphant to discover that Random House agreed with me.  Well, okay, so there was a minor amount of crowing and a moment or two of condescending superiority.

But this really didn’t settle the matter.  In fact, it led to a second question.  Having proved that I was (ahem) correct, we were faced with her total assurance that when she was growing up her definition was the definition.  Where, exactly, did my friend get her odd notion?  Was it all in her own head?  Simply some individual misreading of what people were saying?  After all, so much of our early vocabulary learning is purely contextual.  Sore muscle and cramp are not so far apart as to preclude such a misunderstanding.

On the other hand, could it have been one of those family special definitions?  A usage shared only within four walls?  I’ve run into a few of those from my own family.

Maybe.  But my friend was sure that her playground pals shared the same version.  And, since a child’s world is pretty well bound by family and playmates, that meant that everybody knew that a Charley Horse was a sore muscle.

Okay, obviously a little research was in order.  So first she queried her brothers.  I must admit that I was pretty sure she was mistaken about their common usage and that the whole thing would stop right there.


Sure as heck, they had exactly the same definition:  a Charley Horse was a sore muscle.  Everybody knew that.

Hmmm.  Curiouser and curiouser.

This was rapidly expanding into a real project.  Having verified this special definition extended at least to the limits of the four walls that they grew up in, we needed to go further.  Could it be a neighborhood thing?  Our next step was to start asking around among the Bronx expatriate community here in San Diego.  Turns out (once again, to my total surprise) that all of them seemed to share the same odd definition.

But here the whole thing got a new wrinkle.  My friend is Jewish.  The whole San Diego Bronx community seems to be Jewish.  (A parenthetical question – since every Jew in the Bronx seems to have moved to Southern California, who lives in the Bronx now?)  So is this special definition a Bronx thing?  A Jewish thing?  Or maybe a Bronx Jewish thing?

More research.  We started casting our nets wider.  Another friend who was Jewish but who grew up in upstate New York volunteered that a Charley Horse was a sore muscle to her, too.  That added the possibilities that it was a New York thing, a New York Jewish thing, etc.

Clearly we were getting so many possibilities that we needed more data, but how to get it?


Turns out the Bronx High School of Science has a sort of alumni bulletin board.  For the period we were researching (i.e. back in the Dark Ages when we were kids), one heck of a percentage, but not all, of the Bronx Science kids were Jewish.  Tapping into this new resource, we posted a query on their bulletin board.  We got quite a few responses.

The results?  All the Jewish grads from the Bronx shared the sore muscle definition (my friend was suitably smug).  But one lady who was black used the standard cramp definition, as did a Jewish grad who had grown up in Philadelphia.

This opened still wider the question about non-New York and non-Jewish definitions.  What we needed was more people from the Bronx who weren’t Jewish and more people of any variety who were from the East but not from the Bronx.  At this point our online research more or less stalled.  We tried to have the Bronx Science Jewish grads tap their Gentile friends, but apparently their fascination with this problem is rather less than ours..

But we did get one more chunk of data.  I ran into two friends in a restaurant who were waiting for their daughters to show up for dinner.  Since they are Jewish and from the Bronx, I tried the query on them: both agreed that (of course) a Charley Horse is a sore muscle, not a cramp.  No real surprise there.  Then their daughters, who grew up in California, arrived.  I explained my little research project and asked them what a Charley Horse was.  Both of them, with the typical air of surprise that anyone would even ask such an obvious question, said that a Charley Horse was a muscle cramp!  So clearly the playground trumps the home world, at least in this case.

Which may have been the beginning of the whole thing.  As you might expect, I have a theory:

Imagine New York as it was back in the heyday of immigration.  All those folks, fresh off Ellis Island, would be likely to encounter a family member or some other fellow countryman.  Although many of these were intent on exploiting the newcomers, one result was the same: they would find themselves directed to some neighborhood full of tenements, full of sweatshops, and full of others like themselves.

At home and in the shops, they would be immersed in a milieu much like the old country.  Everyone spoke the old tongue, observed the old customs, and even married people from their own villages.  They had, particularly those who came as adults with families, little time and less energy to learn more than a broken sort of English spoken in the lilt of the old country.

Not so their children.  With their parents working long hours and absorbed in a community that duplicated as much as possible the world they came from, the children discovered and invented their own world down in the streets.  Ferociously ambitious and driven to grasp the limitless opportunities of their new home, they learned English at a fantastic rate.  Memoirs of the time tell innumerable stories of young children translating for their parents with the authorities and the local bureaucrats.

But exactly what kind of English did they learn?  The streets were a closed world of their own, with only the older children supplying a dose from actual classrooms.  So they learned an English with a foreign rhythm, often liberally spiced with phrases from the old country.  Later, the radio, the superb public education system, and the growth of jobs outside the neighborhood would enforce a localized version of standard English.  But it is not hard to imagine that those streets had rung with the shrill sounds of an English that was rife with local special definitions and misunderstood colloquialisms.

So maybe, if someone did some really thorough research, they would discover that the Jews of New York shared a number of odd definitions for terms that are customarily learned on the streets or in the playgrounds.  Likewise the Italians or the Puerto Ricans may have their own set.  And perhaps within the larger set of New York Jews (or Italians, or Germans, or Puerto Ricans) there may be subsets.  Perhaps the Brooklyn Jews and the Bronx Jews have a few that are unique to them and different from the larger communities.  And each of these communities may have unknowingly passed those notions born in the immigrant streets down to the second or third generations.

Now, I doubt if anyone is going to run right out and give me a grant to study Special Definitions Within Ethnic Communities, but I’m not quite ready to give up on this project yet.  To confirm or deny my theory, what I still need is more data.

And that is where you come in.  If you don’t mind doing me a favor and if you can answer either of these questions, please e-mail me at the address below.

If you are from some New York area, Jewish or not – what is a Charley Horse?

Or if to you a Charley Horse is a sore muscle – what is your ethnicity and where did you grow up?

I’ve created a special email address, just for this project:

[Needless to say, the survey is long over.  New York City, Parts of Pennsylvania and Cleveland seem to share the sore muscle definition.  For everybody else, it’s a cramp.]

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