Secret Library

The Curious Meaning and Literary Origins of the Phrase ‘Dark Horse’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of the phrase ‘dark horse’ in a forgotten nineteenth-century novel

The novel The Young Duke may have been forgotten, but its author hasn’t been – even if his reputation as an author is not now as high as it once was. To make sense of this – and to discover what it has to do with the origins of the new well-known phrase, ‘dark horse’ – we need to go back to 1831.

In that year, a young British author in his late twenties, named Benjamin Disraeli, published The Young Duke, his third novel. His first, Vivian Grey, had appeared five years earlier when Disraeli was only 22. He was forging a successful career as a novelist, although his bigger ambition – to enter the House of Commons – would have to wait until 1837, when he was elected as one of two MPs for Maidstone.

Of course, his subsequent political career is better-known: he became UK Prime Minister in 1868 (briefly, serving from February to December), and then again in 1874, serving until 1880. He was famously beloved of Queen Victoria, unlike his Liberal rival, William Ewart Gladstone.

And before Winston Churchill in the following century, Benjamin Disraeli was probably the most quotable, and quoted, of all British Prime Ministers. Many people may do so without realising they are, in fact, using a phrase which he introduced.

If we talk about ‘climbing the greasy pole’, we are borrowing a phrase first used by Disraeli (to describe his rise to become Prime Minister in 1868), and if someone speaks of being ‘on the side of the angels’ (now, especially thanks to Sherlock, associated with goodness and virtue), they are effectively quoting Disraeli, who spoke of himself (as an Anglican) preferring the Biblical account of man’s origins (the ‘angels’) over the Darwinian explanation of how humans came to be (the ‘apes’).

As I say, many people may ‘quote’ Disraeli when using such expressions, without being conscious that they are quoting him. But there’s another phrase which originated with him, which has taken on an even more successful life of its own than either ‘climbing to the top of the greasy pole’ or being ‘on the side of the angels’, and that’s ‘dark horse’.

We all know what, or who, a ‘dark horse’ is. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines its meaning as follows: someone or something ‘of whom or which nothing is generally known; about whose powers, etc., the public are “in the dark”.’

So much for the meaning of the phrase. But as the OED’s earliest citation for the term reveals, ‘dark’ was initially meant a good deal more literally. We discover more if we turn to chapter V of The Young Duke, in which the narrator recounts an exciting horse race:

There were more than ninety horses, and yet the start was fair. But the result? Pardon me! The fatal remembrance overpowers my pen. An effort and some Eau de Portingale, and I shall recover. The first favourite was never heard of, the second favourite was never seen after the distance post, all the ten-to-oners were in the rear, and a dark horse, which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph. 

The action continues:

The spectators were almost too surprised to cheer; but when the name of the winner was detected there was a deafening shout, particularly from the Yorkshiremen. The victor was the Earl of St. Jerome’s b. f. May Dacre, by Howard.

‘Eau de Portingale’, by the way, is a distilled spirit from Portugal; outside of The Young Duke reference to this drink appears to be minimal, to say the least.

So, a dark-coloured horse becomes the surprise winner in a horse race, and a new expression is born, for one whose qualities or capabilities are little-known. The next time you refer to someone, or hear someone else refer to someone, as a ‘dark horse’, you can recall the term’s origins in a very literal horse race in a novel by one of nineteenth-century literature’s rising stars, and future political leaders.

And Disraeli’s star would continue to rise in the literary world, too. Many of his novels, The Young Duke especially, may not be widely read now, but his 1840s novel Sybil, subtitled The Two Nations, stands in many ways alongside novels like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Dickens’s Hard Times as a mid-nineteenth-century novel exploring the gulf between the richest and poorest, the Haves and Have-Nots, in industrial Victorian society.

Indeed, the phrase ‘Two Nations’ was often used to describe this gap between the rich and poor – another phrase which Disraeli gifted to the world.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.


  1. PM Boris Johnson wrote a woeful novel entitled ‘Seventy Two Virgins’ which is hilarious – crude, illiterate and utter tripe. I imagine Disraeli’s novels are far more distinguished and far less coarse…………