C is for Charley horse

Yesterday was the first time I had ever heard the term “Charley horse,” – or so I thought. Here is the text exchange between me and Child 2 that I received:

FullSizeRenderSo what is a Charley horse? Well it’s a cramp.

Child 2 got a major cramp in his calf during his marathon swim practice yesterday afternoon and from his description I’d translate it as that kind of cramp where your muscle very suddenly seizes up into a big bunch. Next time you have one, think of it as a Charley Horse. I don’t suppose it will go away any faster, but it’s certainly a more fun name than ‘big, nasty, bunching cramp.”

According to my  Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang the term originates in baseball although it also says that “despite investigation, the origin of the term remains obscure.” So here are a couple of possible explanations…


1. This is Charles Radbourne (1854-1897), also known as Charley, also known as Old Hoss. He played Major League Baseball and won the World Series with the Providence Greys in 1884. I don’t know whether Charley Old Hoss suffered a lot of cramp and so his name got squidged into Charley horse or not, but he does seem to have been a bit of a character. Wikipedia has this picture:


According to his wiki page, this is the opening day 1886 team photo of Boston Beaneaters (LOVE THAT!) and New York Giants (SO DULL). Radbourn (standing, far left) is pictured giving the finger to the cameraman, the first known photograph of the gesture. In later life he lost an eye in a hunting accident and died after a long battle with syphilis. I dont’ care if its not all accurate. What’s not to love about wikipedia?

2. Alternatively, there may have been a lame horse called Charley who gave the world the term. The horse is said to have pulled the roller at the ground of the Chicago White Stockings around the same time as Charley Radbourne was winning the World Series. It’s reported that the horse’s limp caught the eye of some players and when they suffered from leg cramps they said they looked like Charley the horse.

3. And then there is Child 2’s explanation, offered up when he got home last night (I have put him in sepia to see if he looks more authoritative that way)

“I guess it’s called that because when you got it you kick your leg out, just like a horse.” Not a bad stab at it, I thought, although I am still left wondering about who Charley was.

But, UK readers of a certain vintage (ie mine), did you notice I wrote earlier that although I thought I’d never heard the term Charley horse before? Here is where Charley horse very definitely made it into my consciousness, although being the lazy child I was, I don’t suppose I ever wondered what it was doing there or what it meant.


There is the Charley horse on the patient’s right leg and of course, now I see it, I remember that little plastic horse very clearly. Sadly it looks like newer versions of this old game have replaced some of the injuries, including Charley horse, with more modern ‘ailments’ including headphones headache and gamer’s thumb. I could grumble on about that but since I never thought properly about the old injuries (bread basket anyone??), I think I’ll leave Charley horse there.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Alan Bound says:

    Now, if you were as old as me, you’d remember the lovely Shari Lewis of Lambchop sock puppet fame. Another regular puppet was… Charlie Horse.

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