He’s a dark horse, isn’t he?
How would you describe the expression a dark horse to somebody who’d never heard it before? After thinking for a moment, you might say it’s a person of hidden depths or secret talents/opinions, someone who achieves something when no-one expected that they might. You might give an example of a quiet student in a language class who suddenly speaks confidently and fluently in an oral exam.
That’s all fine, pretty straightforward, and gets the meaning across. What though, if someone asked you why the expression has this meaning? What’s the link, what’s its origin? That might be a little harder. You could try to speculate logically, but you might struggle there. Plenty of horses are dark, so why would any particular meaning be associated with a horse’s shade? Maybe it’s specifically about black horses. Maybe they were considered unlucky, like black cats! Why horses though?
You might well find your way to the answer eventually, because it’s actually relatively straightforward, but the point is that it’s still not that easy to figure out where it comes from, from the words alone. This is how things often are in language, but particularly with idioms. They’re always going to be somewhat difficult to figure out, as by their nature they’re almost never literal. Sometimes, an idiom will basically tell you what it means. Staying with animal-related idioms; if someone tells you they’re as blind as a bat, you know what they mean. If someone is described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you might need to think about it a little, but the meaning is still fairly clear, even without context.
The elephant in the room? A little less obvious, but still, thinking about it might lead you to take a pretty good guess. But what if something gets your goat? Or goes to the dogs? What about a red herring? You could spend an age looking at these and not figure them out, even if you come across them in context.
Of course if you’re a native speaker you don’t need to worry about figuring them out. It’ll take time, but by the time you reach adulthood you’ll have encountered most idioms often enough to have picked up their meaning, especially if you read a lot. But if you’re learning a language, idioms can be very hard to understand. Context helps, and obviously so does attending lessons or looking up their meaning, but even then it’s not easy. I know I’ve come across some idioms in French, looked them up, and then a few weeks later encountered them again and realised I’ve forgotten their meaning because it’s so far-removed from the words involved.
And all that’s assuming that you recognise that you’re dealing with an idiom in the first place. Imagine a language student reading an English article in which someone is described as a dark horse. Depending on their level, there’s a good chance they might think a literal horse is being referred to. They might get confused, and think they’d made a mistake when they assumed they’d been reading about a person, and go back and reread to see where it was first mentioned that the article’s actually about a horse. Or, they might be confident enough to be sure that the person is still a person, but not be able to figure out what the writer means by calling them a dark horse. And if you’re reading a work of fantasy in which it’s plausible that a character might actually turn into a horse, then all bets are off.
Attitude is really important when dealing with idioms, or unclear language in general. Ideally, if you come across a word or phrase you’ve never heard of, or don’t understand in a particular context, you keep reading till at least the end of the sentence, because often there’s enough context in a single sentence to tell you the meaning. If you’re still stumped, keep going and read till the end of the paragraph, and consider what came before the idiom. If you’re still confused, you’ll have to start using your imagination. Could there be another meaning to these words? What ideas do I associate with them? What do I know about this character, or the character calling them a dark horse? If none of that works, and it won’t always work, then it’s time to check the dictionary, or google it.
You might be thinking, Why not just look it up straight away, and save yourself all that time and effort? Well first of all, for some of us, all that time and effort can be fun. It can be interesting to think about words, where they come from and why we use them. And it can be exhilarating and quite satisfying when you figure something out on your own. Plus, it’s been proven that you retain language better if you figure it out yourself, rather than just looking it up. That mental effort creates associations between the term and its meaning in your brain, personalises it, and gives you confidence. That’s why a good language teacher engages learners in discovering and analysing language themselves, rather than just telling them what things mean.
Not everyone finds that easy though, or is willing to put in that effort. Some people simply expect a teacher to just give them all the information they want. Adult students will often feel that they already did all their learning and figuring things out in school, and now they shouldn’t have to do that anymore. And some people simply resist having to use their imagination and conceive of a language that does things differently from their native tongue. Their most common practice is to translate directly from their own language, which generally doesn’t work, but is particularly unhelpful when you start talking about elephants in rooms and cats’ pyjamas. They might know the individual words’ translations in their language, but they’re not going to start trying to figure out what it means. They might look it up, but even then they’ll probably think Pfft, we don’t say that in my language, I’m not going to use it. The most common refrain of such an individual is something like: But in my language we say this; why can’t I say that in English? And if you start learning a language with that attitude, you won’t get far.
I don’t mean to be too critical of such a mindset, because I understand where it comes from, especially in adults who feel their learning days are long behind them. But if you’re learning a language, you have to be willing to accept that, even if you have an amazing teacher, you have to put in a lot of work, and be imaginative and open-minded about how you think about language. To butcher a well-worn phrase: a second language is like a foreign country – they do things differently there.
P.S. A dark horse originally comes from the horse-racing scene in 19th-century Britain, and presumably dark here means obscure, in the shade, as though a horse not expected to win had been hiding in the shadows.