shanks’ mare: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘shanks' mare’ mean?

*Shanks' mare* is an idiom that refers to walking or traveling on foot. It is derived from the practice of using one's own legs (i.e., shanks) as a mode of transportation, particularly when no other means are available.

Idiom Explorer


Shanks' mare is an idiom used in the United States, particularly in the Midwest, to mean traveling on foot when no other means of transportation is available. It originated in Scotland and made its way to the United States where it has become part of American English. While its exact origin is unknown, the idiom has been in use for many decades and its meaning is well-established.

One possible origin of the phrase is that "shanks' mare" refers to walking beside a horse rather than riding it. In the past, when horses were the primary mode of transportation, people would walk alongside the horse as a form of travel. This practice was sometimes referred to as "riding shanks' mare." Over time, the phrase evolved to simply "shanks' mare," which came to mean walking on one's own legs without the aid of a horse or any other transportation.

Another theory suggests that the expression comes from using one's own legs to power a horse-drawn cart or carriage. When a horse was unable to move the cart, the person would have to get off and push or pull the vehicle themselves. This form of propulsion became known as "shanks' mare" or "shanks' pony," signifying the use of one's legs rather than relying on the horse.

Walking is my preferred mode of transportation.

Regardless of its exact origin, shanks' mare has become a part of American English, denoting self-reliance, resourcefulness, and a willingness to endure physical exertion to reach one's destination. It can also be used humorously or ironically when alternative modes of transportation are available but the person chooses to walk.

Shanks' mare embodies the endurance and persistence of the human spirit. It reminds us that even in an age of advanced technology and conveniences, there is value in relying on our own legs to get us where we need to go. While it may not always be the easiest or most efficient mode of transportation, it allows us to experience the world around us in a way that we might otherwise miss. So the next time you find yourself without a ride or in need of some exercise, consider embarking on a journey with shanks' mare and see where the road takes you.

The idiom "shanks' nag" is another term that refers to traveling on foot. A nag is a horse, but in this context, it represents a tired or worn-out horse that can no longer be ridden. When someone is using "shanks' nag," they are walking because they don't have a horse or any other means of transportation available. It's a lighthearted way of saying that they are relying on their own legs to get around.

Similarly, "shank-nag" is another phrase that means the same thing as shanks' mare. It implies that the person is walking instead of using any form of transportation, be it a horse, car, or any other vehicle. It's a colloquial way of referring to walking and emphasizes the reliance on one's own two feet.

Lastly, the idiom "walk the plank" is related to shanks' mare in that both involve walking, but "walk the plank" has a different connotation. It originated in the context of pirates, specifically, when a captured sailor would be forced to walk off the edge of a plank extending from a ship into the water. This was considered a form of execution or punishment. The phrase has since evolved to mean undertaking a risky or dangerous venture, often with a sense of being compelled to do so. While shanks' mare is about walking on one's own, "walk the plank" suggests walking into a perilous situation.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom "shanks' mare" can be used in sentences:

1. "I don't have a car, so I'll have to rely on shanks' mare to get to the store."

2. "The bus is not running today, so I'll have to take shanks' mare to school."

3. "We had some car trouble during our road trip, but luckily we were able to continue on shanks' mare."

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