Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Episode 112: One-Trick Pony Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 112: One-Trick Pony

Record Date: June 6, 2021

Air Date: June 9, 2021



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

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

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 want to look at the saddest of circuses. Circi? Circon? No, it’s almost certainly circuses. Anyway, the saddest of the more than one circus. 

One trick pony.

Side note: Did you know “circus” used to refer to A large building, generally oblong or oval, surrounded with rising tiers of seats, for the exhibition of public spectacles, horse or chariot races, and the like. It comes from the Latin for circle. 

But it quickly became synonymous with the things that happened at the building. 



one-trick pony  n.  (also one-trick horse) colloquial (originally and chiefly U.S.(a) U.S. a pony which has been taught one trick, esp. one performing in a circus (now rare);  (b) a person or thing specializing in only one area, having only one talent, or of limited ability.

And the reason I mentioned circus earlier is because the earliest attestation I could find was listed in the OED and highlighted one-trick pony used in relation to a circus. 

OED’s attestations: 

1905   Oregon Pioneer Assoc. 32nd Ann. Reunion 264   In the procession of events that go shifting by, Among the earliest of mundane things remembered are the resplendent red shirts of the volunteer firemen, conspicuous in every Fourth of July parade; the marvels that were seen at the first one-tent, one-clown, one-trick-pony, pioneer Oregon circus.; the procession that always responded to the whistle and went down to greet the arrival of every steamboat, the great flood of 1861, and the historic trip of the Onward under the command of Captain George Pease; …

1950   R. Franken From Claudia to David 143   ‘I'll make another basket,’ said Claudia. ‘I'm a one- trick pony.’

1991   Christian Sci. Monitor 29 Oct. 8/3   Other software companies wonder if Lotus has become a one-trick horse: clever in spreadsheets but little else.

It also describes the daily arrival of the old four-horse stage coach and it’s bugling for several lines before it wraps up with this phrase, “These and many other incidents all have a distinctive pioneer flavor which those of the present generation cannot appreciate.”

I include that last part to highlight the age-old concept that the older generations always think the younger generations cannot appreciate something. This isn’t new. It’s been happening for hundreds of years. And it probably won’t stop with Boomers or Millenials after them. 

But back to the quote - “...the marvels that were seen at the first one-ten, one-clown, one-trick-pony, pioneer Oregon circus…” So this is the first time the OED has this phrase attested, though it appears to be a more literal use, not an idiomatic one. 

In almost all uses, this seems to be a demeaning phrase. So if someone called you a one-trick pony, it is often meant as an insult. It implies you are only good for one thing and you don’t know how to do other things. 


This is from a story in the periodical The Virginia Spectator, dated 1906. Talking about things to add to their wagon and as the quote starts, they are looking at a baby wagon

“...this here is a reservoir for milk; and that - she gives us - is a place to put a phonograph to sing the baby to sleep. 

It’s too strenuous, I said, we got one trick horse already. We want something now that will inspire the simple life. 

She’s basically saying the don’t want kids, so they don’t want those attachments. Which is cool by me. If you don’t want kids, don’t have kids. You shouldn’t be pressured for it. Not by salespeople, not by parents, not by friends… but I think I’m getting off topic.


This is the literal one-trick pony, where a pony or horse knows one trick, like jumping through a fire hoop, or playing dead, or speaking on command. 

I should note, this used the word “inmate”, which now we associate with someone who is in jail. But since the late 1500s, the word inmate has been used to describe a person who is an associate of another who lives in the same dwelling. This could be a live-in guest, a renter or subtenant, or a worker who live in the home - such as from this 1822 example by Robert Nares, from his work: 

A glossary: or, collection of words, phrases, names, and allusions to customs, proverbs, etc, Which have been thought to require illustration, in the works of English Authors

From his entry on clowns.


The fool was indeed the inmate of every opulent house, but the rural jester, or clown, seems to have been peculiar to the country families.

End quote

Since this phrase is a relatively new one compared to most of the phrases we’ve looked into, many of our examples of its idiomatic usage will be more modern. Before we get to those examples, we want to give a shout out to the folks who make this show possible!

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

One-Trick Pony (album), a 1980 studio album by Paul Simon, and a song on the album, as well as the movie of the same name that Paul Simon starred in. 

1980 Song

The song is kind of a jazz funk melded into Paul Simon’s classic style. Lyrics from the song include the opening stanza:

He's a one trick pony

One trick is all that horse can do

he does one trick only

It's the principal source of his revenue

And when he steps into the spotlight

You can feel the heat of his heart

Come rising through

1980 Movie

The movie was released on October 3, 1980. The synopsis”

Paul Simon plays Jonah Levin, a once-popular folk-rock musician who hasn't had a hit in ten years, and now opens for bands like the B-52's. He's trying to record a new album, but faces a number of obstacles, including an indifferent record-company executive who's pressuring him to create a hit record with the help of a trendy producer. Jonah is also trying to restore his relationship with his estranged wife, Marion, and young son, Matty

1994 Short Story

This one should satisfy you True Crime enthusiasts.

You Belong to Me and other True Cases by Ann Rules

Ann Rules’ Crime Files: Vol 2

The 3rd short story in this book is titled “One Trick Pony”. Here is the intro to that short about the murder of Donna Howard, a rodeo trick rider found dead in the horse stable by an apparent kick in the head from a horse. 

2003 Song

"One Trick Pony", a single by Nelly Furtado featuring Kronos Quartet from the 2003 album Folklore

Lyrics include:

You say, you're identical to none

But you're identical to some

Who wants to be a some?

Not me

I am not a one-trick pony

I am not a one-trick pony

I really feel no one can own me

I really feel nothing can hold me 

2006 Song

"One Trick Pony", a 2006 single by Joe Brown, which is a cover of the Paul Simon song. But I like Joe Browns voice, so I wanted to include it here. Kind of like Johnny Cash in his older days, but not quite as deep. And the cover is more folksy than funk, which I liked for this song.

2017 Book

One Trick Pony by Nathan Hale - A graphic novel


In a desolate future, a group of kids—and one special robot pony—are the key to Earth’s salvation.


Ever since the invasion, humans have been on the run from giant alien blobs who suck up electrical devices (and human limbs!) wherever they can find them. Strata and her family are part of a caravan of digital rescuers, hoping desperately to keep the memory of civilization alive. Other humans have reverted to a pre-electrical age, or have taken advantage of the invasion to become bandits. When Strata and her brother are separated from the caravan, they must rely on a particularly beautiful and rare robot pony to escape the outlaws and aliens-and perhaps even push back against the alien invaders.


One Trick Pony Grill and Taproom is located in Grand Rapids, MI that is currently closed but their website says they will be reopening soon. I’ll be in Grand Rapids this fall for a conference and will be giving it a try.

Urban Dictionary

I want to give a few examples of definitions from one of Shauna’s favorite sources, Urban Dictionary. If you aren’t familiar with Urban Dictionary, it is a website where users submit definitions for words or phrases. They do not have to be correct and they do not have to be appropriate. Many definitions on the site are crude, sexual or violent in nature, or generally contain many swear words in the definitions or examples. However, users can rate the definition. And Urban Dictionary tracks activity on the words or phrases since 2012 so one can see the popularity of the word over time. So despite it not being what we might call, “Safe for Work”, there is some interesting information to be gathered from it. Here are a few uses from Urban Dictionary:

Submitted by A J C in 2006 - One Trick Pony; is used to describe a friend, acquaintance or stranger, who has very few talents, sayings, jokes or skills.

This one matches what we’ve been talking about and works well for how we see the phrase used today.

Submitted by user “Skitzophrenic” in 2018 - Generally used in MOBAs, this is the act of using only one person/character in a game, without stray

An MOBA is a multiplayer online battle arena. According to 

team-based multiplayer strategy game, where each player controls a single powerful unit that accumulates resources and increases in strength throughout the match. Each team starts on opposite sides of the map, and the goal is to destroy the opposing team’s buildings, culminating in the destruction of the enemy’s main building, which wins them the game. Easy peasy.”

Some popular MOBAs are Dota 2, League of Legends. MOBAs originated from player-made custom maps in games like Starcraft and Warcraft III.

And if you only play as one character in a MOBA and never vary it up, you might be a one-trick pony. I wonder if that would apply to Dungeons and Dragons as well? Like, if you only ever play as a magic using elf or a hulk-smashing tank of a half-orc. 

2020 Play/Musical

December 2020 - One Trick Pony Club

From the West End Magazine

More than your average evening show, One Trick Pony Club skyrockets you into a late-night, spontaneously wild, weird, and wonderful world of unique talents performed by some of our very finest entertainers, across a variety of performing art forms. Audiences get to strap in, dress up, sing loud, dance interpretively, and completely immerse themselves into the acts, including everything from musical talents to sketch comedy, circus, dance, acrobatics, drag, absurd, and everything else in-between… all are welcome in our fabulous club.

The article showcased what would be the future Feb 6, 2021 performance of One Trick Pony Club: Act 2. Which they say “will showcase an all-star, award-winning line-up of talent including comedians Kate Wheatley and Chris Martin, multi-award-winning cabaret drag artist, Candy Surprise, jazz talent Yas Queen and Brisbane’s favourite, Blues Arcadia plus many more.” 


June 1, 2021

This phrase even showed up in a Wall Street Journal headline recently. “In Travel, It Pays to Be a One-Trick Pony”. The article highlights how Airbnb decided to focus on homeshare experiences and not move into the larger booking industry. It points out the booking industry dropped 90% year on year, and is down 50% from the same period in 2019 (prior to the pandemic). While Airbnb only dropped 67% year on year and is already back to pre-pandemic levels, actually up 3% from the same period in 2019.

Which I guess just goes to show you that whether you are looking for examples in the arts, the sciences, or even business, this phrase is ubiquitous; it is everywhere. 

Wrap up...

I can’t say I love this phrase, because it is usually a bit of an insult. But I used to have a self-deprecating style of humor, so I would sometimes put myself down in an attempt to get laughs out of other people. That style of humor isn’t the most healthy thing as it relies on me putting myself down, which isn’t great for my mental health - so now I only use it sparingly when the need to put others at ease through humor might be appropriate. And one-trick pony is definitely one of those phrases I keep in the repertoire for that kind of use. 

I do like the allusion - at least in my mind - to a one-trick pony being the opposite of a jack-of-all-trades. If a jack of all trades is someone who is good at a lot of different things, but isn’t necessarily great at any of them, then maybe a one-trick pony should be someone who is really great at one thing and doesn’t necessarily know much about many other areas. So I guess what I’m saying is maybe we shouldn’t treat one-trick pony as a bad thing. Maybe some people are a one-trick pony with a one-track mind. And that’s probably okay. It takes all kinds of kinds...



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have a modern example of this phrase we should have included this week, we’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us on any of our social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram all @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


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


Words belong to their users.

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