Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Episode 93: Neck and Neck Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 93: Neck and Neck

Record Date: December 29, 2020

Air Date: December 30, 2020



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week, we are talking about…  equines. Dan, can you guess the phrase?  


You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink?

Never look a gift horse in the mouth?

The grass is always greener on the other side? (Which I always imagine a horse being the one pondering that question as they look over the fence at the next pasture.)



Collins Dictionary gives us the meaning for neck and neck as: 

In a competition, especially an election, if two or more competitors are neck and neck, they are level with each other and have an equal chance of winning.

With the example sentence: 

The latest polls indicate that the two main parties are neck and neck.

The idiomatic usage for this phrase is used primarily in discussing political or other races between people that involve voting or some form of popularity contest. Let’s take a look at the phrase over time. 

From the Oxford English Dictionary, we get the definition: 

P10. neck and neck (also with hyphens).

a. Originally of horses in a race: keeping level, neither falling behind nor getting ahead of each other. Hence in extended use (of two or more contestants): level in a race, competition, or comparison.

1799 The Sporting Magazine 13 

In this way, neck and neck, whipping and spurring, all the speed of the horses, and all the skill of the jockies exerted, they rode up to the ending post.

This immediately brings up the question for me… why did people say neck and neck about horses? 

Horse Racing. The length of a horse's neck, used as a measurement of the distance separating two horses at the finishing line of a race; esp. in (to win or lose) by a neck. Also figurative and in extended use. Cf. neck and neck at Phrases 10.

1791 Geoffrey Gambado [pseudonym for artist and caricaturist Henry Bunbury) · Annals of horsemanship: containing accounts of accidental experiments, and experimental accidents, … communicated by various correspondents to G. G. … Together with … remarks thereon … with cuts

But Looby [sc. a racehorse] being distrest by the severity of this, and the first heat, was forc'd to submit to his half a neck.

This use of half a neck here was less than 10 years prior to seeing neck and neck in The Sporting Magazine. Since phrases have a tendency to be common in speech prior to being seen in print, these phrases may have been used in the spoken language throughout the 1790s or maybe earlier.

This phrase was also used in other ways, as in this article from 

The Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser. April 28, 1798, out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

1802 The Morning Post 16 July 

The contest for Kent is the keenest that has yet been run. The three candidates are neck and neck. You might cover them all with a sheet.

c1812 - The Croker Papers: the Correspondence and Diaries of the late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker. This excerpt comes from the 1st edition which was edited by Louis John Jennings, originally released in 1844 and later in 1884. 

In the House of Commons..where the parties were, if I may use the expression, neck and neck.

I found it interesting how quickly this phrase was picked up for other uses… though perhaps not surprising, as we know how much people throughout history all love their political satire! 

I found the phrase in a few newspapers in the US by referencing the Chronicling America website, the Library of Congress’ collection of Historic American Newspapers. 

The first of these is from the Delaware Journal out of Wilmington, Delaware, the October 02, 1827 edition. 

To be run, on Tuesday next, October 2, a match race for a purse of 1,000 Dollars, on the course on which the two famous horses, old Rodney and Bayard, so frequently contended, neck and neck.

1829 Pierce Egan Boxiana, or, Sketches of ancient and modern pugilism

Hall again took the lead, but it was almost neck-and-neck; and lots of laughter and betting occurred as to the event.

The Herald out of New York City, in the February 27, 1836 edition. It contained an article titled, “State of Medical Science - Barclay Street College - Fate of War” 

From the May 29, 1845 edition of the Jeffersonian Republican out of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, we find this quote: 

The horses again started evenly, and kept closely together, neck and neck, for nearly three miles---but Peytona was a neck in advance at the end of the second mile. 

1877 John Richard Green’s Letters (Oxford English Dictionary includes that Green was a historian.)

To keep neck and neck with the printers..would be a daily pressure.

June 1901 Chambers's Journal of London, England 

There a horse fell or staggered, and was instantly recovered. Now we were a few yards ahead, again neck-and-neck with the ‘Quicksilver’.

So while we’ve seen it used to refer to a variety of topics, it continued to be used to refer to horses specifically throughout the 1800’s and through to today as well. 

1955 Times 23 June 9/4

Production ran neck-and-neck in the studios, but the second version..reached the public screen last.

July 19, 2000 Cape Times from Cape Town, South Africa neck and neck with her Republican challenger Rick Lazio in the polls.

A Quick Thank You

This week’s episode is sponsored by our Patrons, with special thanks to our Logomorphology Interns Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. Your support makes Bunny Trails happen and we couldn’t do it without you!

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Pop Culture and Modern Examples

Neck & Neck is a 2009 book from the Kentucky Derby series by Elizabeth Bevarly.  

There’s only one sure way for fledgling party planner Natalie Beckett to make her Kentucky Derby Eve soiree a success: get reclusive video game creator/billionaire Russell Mullholland to attend. But how can she even get out of the gate with Russell’s gorgeous bodyguard, Finn Guthrie, blocking the way? Never let it be said that Natalie doesn’t like a challenge, for soon she finds sparring with Finn far more exciting than landing Russell on her VIP guest list.

Neck and Neck is a lovely baby and children’s clothier with locations across Spain, Portugal, Italy, and other countries. Their website is aptly named 


Song - 2016 - Neck and Neck by Zeds Dead featuring Dragonette. The lyrics include: 

Don't mess with my desire

Get ready, aim, and fire

Oh, we face off in a heart race

Baby we go

Head to head

Neck and neck

There is a 2018 children’s book titled Neck & Neck by Elise Parsley in which a popular giraffe, Leopold, finds himself confronted with the sudden arrival of competition at the zoo in the form of balloon giraffes. I won’t give anymore spoilers on this one… you’ll just have to check it out for yourself! 

In a Twitter post:, 

Joey Bag of Donuts


said, “Is there a worse cereal than this?” and shared a photo of Cotton Candy Crunch cereal. 

To which, 

Nolan Hatfield 


Replied, “I saw Sour Patch Kids cereal at the store Saturday. They could go neck and neck for the worst.”

Wrap up...

This one was just fun to research. I enjoy that this phrase initially sounds right, then once you try to really think it through, seems to make a little less sense… And then again, with the knowledge of its origin, is completely logical. I like that neck and neck is a descriptive phrase - it merely provides information about the status of a situation. There is no positive or negative implication with it. Neck and neck remains applicable to our daily lives and it certainly seems as though it will stick around for a while. And really, we all love a good race. 



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And as always, you can get the free show notes for this episode, plus links to everything we do, on our website, 

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

Dan: Let’s get out of this year. 2021, here we come!

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