Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Episode 210: As Hungry as a Horse


This week Shauna and Dan decide if they are as hungry as a horse or if they are so hungry they could eat a horse. Better question, would they eat the saddle, too? Bonus: Hungry like a wolf, oxen, hawk, and farmhand. #BunnyTrails

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 210: As Hungry As A Horse
Record Date: October 13, 2023
Air Date: October 18, 2023


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

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

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

Opening Hook
Have you ever had one of those days where you think of food and think, wowsers I am hungry. Maybe you were so busy at work you forgot to eat, or maybe you were doing some physical activity and you expended a bunch of calories, or maybe times have been tight and you simply haven’t been able to eat as much as you should. In each case, you might say you are as hungry as a horse.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘as hungry as a horse’ is one of a group of phrases for hunger that use similes to communicate the message. A simile is a figure of speech that compares one thing to another thing. It’s used to make a description more clear. Like, she’s as brave as a lion or his hair is as dark as night. Or I’m as hungry as a horse. Here’s the definition of “as hungry as a…” from the Oxford English Dictionary:

In similes expressing a comparison with an animal or (less commonly) a person regarded as having a very large or keen appetite, as hungry as a bear, as hungry as a horse, as hungry as a wolf, etc.: very hungry; famished; ravenous.
End Quote
The OED helpfully has an early example for us from A sermon preached at Paules Crosse on Barthelmew day, being the 24. of August by John Stockwood. This is dated 1578.
The Romane souldiors..were wholly bente vppon the spoile, as hungrie as Wolues.
End Quote

So this type of simile has been in use for a long time, probably for as long as we’ve been speaking.

This is from A Collection of English Proverbs by John Ray, printed at Cambridge in 1670. There are two that I will read:

The first…
As hungry as a hawk, or horse
End Quote

The second…
As hungry as a church-mouse
End Quote

Now, neither a hawk nor a church-mouse are large animals, but both are known for their voracious appetites.

This is from A Dictionary, English-Latin and Latin-English containing all things necessary for the translating of either language into the other. This is by Elisha Coles and was published in London in 1699. I’ll read two entries, just the english, that are right next to each other.

To be as hungry as a hawk
As hungry as a wolf
End Quote

Here’s one that has several of this type of simile worked in: Gleanings through Wales, Holland and Westphalia by Samuel Jackson Pratt, 1797.

All this time, mine host of the hovel stood in his sea-drenched apparel, on my reminding him of which, he cried out smilingly, Ah! you are a fresh-water sailor, I perceive, and would take a deal of seasoning, before you were good for any thing; but for me, all winds and weathers are alike…, while I can get good fish abroad, and good flesh at home; so fry away Molly, for the wet has made me as hungry as a shark, and though I have drank like a whale, I shall now eat like a lion - and I hope you will do the same…
End Quote

This next one is from Peter Simple, by Frederick Marryat. It was published in 1834. This one is interesting because instead of as hungry as an animal, it uses something else.

“Well, Nancy, my love, how are you?” Then, stooping over her, “Give me a kiss, old girl. I’m as hungry as a hunter…

Here’s another one that does the same thing, this one out of The
Pensacola Journal out of Pensacola, Florida, dated 20 April 1919. This one is from a story about a rich woman visiting shops in New York City.

We wore ourselves out at last, and by noon were as hungry as farm hands.
End Quote

So I find it interesting that it starts as hungry as an animal with a known appetite and transitions to a person who might be known to have a large appetite. It’s a logical transition and both versions are still used today. And we’ll talk about some other ways to say you are hungry in our behind the scenes video which airs every Friday and is available to Patrons at

But there is another phrase that comes to mind with hunger, and I want to touch on it before we move on, and that is “so hungry I could eat a horse”.

To look at a timing on this one, it may have risen in popularity sometime in the late 1670s. I say that because we looked at A Collection of English Proverbs by John Ray earlier for one of our examples. But this phrase does not appear in that 1670 version. But the 1678 version does have our phrase in it, which could mean it was simply overlooked the first time, or it could mean the phrase had risen in popularity in the prevailing 8 years.

Here is the entry in that 1678 version:
He is so hungry he could eat a horse behind the saddle
End Quote

It is unfortunate that this example doesn’t have any additional explanation.

Here is an example from The Sumter Banner out of Sumterville, South Carolina dated 18 April 1849.

Hunger had sharpened their appetites, and when they entered a little way-side tavern, they were reduced to that pitch of famine that they could eat a horse behind the saddle, as the saying goes.
End Quote

This one notes it is already a saying. And here’s one more example out of the Bally’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, Volume 9, 1865.

We have all heard often enough, especially with seasons like the present one (confound it!), of horses ‘eating their heads of.’ Well, these experimentalists want to save them the trouble, and propose eating not only the heads, but the legs and body also. This Hippic Society, which should be called ‘The Eat-a-horse behind the Saddle Company (Limited)’, actually had a dinner last week at the Grand Hotel. Nothing but horse was served!
End Quote

So I’m not sure why the “behind the saddle” was there originally. If we knew that, we might also know why a horse and not some other large animal or animal with a large appetite, like in our simile examples.

There are lots of theories in comment sections of various etymology gathering places for what “behind the saddle” might have meant, but I didn’t see anything that had evidence behind it. But it seems the “behind the saddle” part dropped off by the 1900s and folks just said they were so hungry they could eat a horse.

There’s more to come on this phrase, but first I want to take a quick break to say thanks to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

1982 Song
Up first is a Duran Duran song called Hungry Like the Wolf off the 1982 album Rio. In this case the hunger is lust, rather than a need for food.

In touch with the ground
I'm on the hunt down I'm after you
Smell like I sound I'm lost in a crowd
And I'm hungry like the wolf
End Quote

I will say there was some controversy around this song, not because of the lyrics or anything but because of the 1983 Diane Downs murder case, in which Downs was said to be tapping her feet and snapping her fingers along to the song in the courtroom, which was being played because it was allegedly the song she listened to while committing her crimes. This seemingly carefree response from Downs really didn’t sit well with folks. Apparently that concern continued for more than 30 years because in 2014 Yoplait, the yogurt company, pulled a commercial featuring the song. In their statement, reposted to, said:

When we chose the song, we had no idea of its connection to this terrible event. We take your feedback seriously, and yes, we have decided to remove this ad from the air while we consider other versions. Please know that it may take a couple of days until the ad is fully removed. We’re again sorry that it’s upset you and promise there was no intention to cause such disappointment.
End Quote

2008 TV Episode
You may have seen the TV show, Las Vegas. It follows the happenings of the fictional Montecito Resort and Casino and the people who work there. The 12th episode of the 5th season is called ‘I Could Eat a Horse’ and aired Jan 4, 2008. Here’s a quick synopsis from

Danny and Mike fly to Cooper's ranch in an effort to purchase a horse for him. Dalinda searches for a new chef, while Sam searches for a way out of dealing with her whale's infidelity and Piper searches for a way out of dealing with an ex who's showed up at the casino
End Quote

I had to look it up because I am not a gambler, but apparently a whale is a term for someone who spends a lot of money at a casino, usually 6 or 7 figures.

2009 Book
Hungry as a Horse: A Sirocco Story is the 8th book in the Wind Dancers series by Sibley Miller and was published in 2009. Here’s a synopsis from the publisher:

Sirocco, the lone colt among a trio of fillies, is always hungry. Will he lose his appetite when his fellow Wind Dancers challenge him to learn to cook, or will he become a chef extraordinaire?
End Quote

A colt is a young male horse and a filly is a young female horse.

In case you were wondering about the Wind Dancer series, here is the quick overview from the publisher:

Four tiny horses with shiny manes and shimmery wings burst from a dandelion seed. Four magical horses who can fly! Dancing on the wind, surrounded by magical haloes, they are the Wind Dancers. Delighted with themselves and with their newly discovered magic, the four new friends―Kona, Brisa, Sumatra, and Sirocco―set out to discover all that their magic has to offer.
End Quote

2014 Book
MOM, I’m SO HUNGRY I Could Eat A HORSE! is a children’s book by Margo Dewey, published in 2014. Here is the synopsis from the publisher:

A little boy, on his way to Grandma’s house, is so hungry that he will eat anything his imagination will allow him to create. The only problem is he starts to look like whatever he eats.
End Quote

2020 Meme
Hungry as a horse became a meme in 2020. For all things memes, we check the database at They note the meme started in 2020:

when Twitter user freshErns posted a Tweet saying
Me: wow I am hungry
Horse: *nervously* how hungry
The tweet, a play on the classic idiom "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," received over 700 likes in over two years, but on August 28th, 2022, Twitter user cabby posted a similar tweet which received over 307,000 likes and over 37,000 retweets in almost five months. On August 30th, 2022, Twitter artist porgiexd posted a comic of the tweet which received over 69,000 likes and over 13,000 retweets in over four months.
End Quote

So it wasn’t until 2022 until the meme hit it big but you can still see the meme in use occasionally as a 3 panel comic strip. The first panel is a character saying ‘man I am so hungry’, the second panel is a horse or other appropriate character looking at the person talking, and the third panel is a close up of the horse, usually in much better artistic detail than the first two panels, saying ‘how hungry’. I’ve seen it used with a man and a horse, with Link and an Octorok, Taako and Garyl, and even Kirby and a Waddle Dee.

2008 Forum Posting
As we close up, I want to mention a few other languages where I found folks talking about this type of phrase. In Japanese, they would be so hungry it looks as if they could eat a horse. Many spanish speakers would say they are so hungry they could eat a bull. Though in Argentinian spanish, they might say they are so hungry they could eat a cow. In Italian they would eat an ox. In Portuguese they would eat an ox horns and all, or also be as hungry as a lion. In German they would have the hunger of a wolf or bear. In Polish they would eat a horse and hooves. And in French, they may eat a bull or a wolf. In Romanian and Turkish they’d also be so hungry they’d eat a wolf. In Czech, you might be so hungry you swallow nails. In Lithuanian you might be as hungry as a beast. And in Greek you might be so hungry you could eat a lamb in one meal.

Wrap Up
Which most tend to lean towards animals with large appetites. So while we don’t know how this phrase got its start, we do know that many of the world’s cultures use a similar phrase. And I love seeing concepts that span many cultures and many countries because I get much more joy out of seeing how humans are similar rather than focusing on how we are different. But all this talk of being hungry has made me hungry, so I’m going to eat a whole chicken. Well, most of it. And that’s not figurative. That’s literal.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, which Star Wars movies have you seen?

Now this one was tricky, because we didn’t want to enrage a fandom with the movies we listed. So we turned to Rotten Tomatoes so if it was wrong, they did it.

We ordered the options chronologically by cannonical Star Wars (according to Rotten Tomatoes). We did not include a few Star Wars media based on this article.

And the top views are a 6-way tie. Almost everyone who responded has seen the original 3 movies, episodes 4, 5, and 6, and the 3 prequels, episodes 1, 2, and 3. About half have seen the new trilogy, episodes 7, 8, and 9. And only a small smattering has seen the rest of the works.

I think Empire Strikes Back is my favorite of the ones I've seen. Though I've heard numerous people say Andor is the best Star Wars product ever made. I also think not enough people have seen the Clone Wars Animated series because it was pretty good, too.

I don’t actually know how I would choose a favorite of these. I also like Empire Strikes Back quite a bit… and I think it’s mostly because of how old I was when I first saw the series. Out of the bunch, Empire provided the most satisfying resolution and revelation in its story… at least to 5-year-old me. But my absolute favorite Star Wars product is the video game originally released in 2005 - Star Wars: Battlefront II. Excellent dogfight and survival rounds.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


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

Words belong to their users.


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