Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Like a Racehorse

Posted by Neal on April 25, 2006

DGM of Sunny Side Up has written about her encounters with an evil nurse at the ER. At one point in the story, she tells us,

I had to pee like a racehorse.

Now DGM is a bit sensitive about me putting stuff she writes under the linguistic magnifying glass, so let me say that I wasn’t planning on commenting on this sentence, any more than I’d comment on most other idioms I come across. But that was before one commenter asked:


One thing I need clarified: I’ve never understood why race horses, in particular, need to piss so bad.

My brother Glen then stepped in to explain:

I can clarify the racehorse thing. The phrase “need to piss like a racehorse” should be parsed [need to] [piss like a racehorse], *not* [need to piss] [like a racehorse]. In other words, racehorses have no special need to piss that other organisms do not. Rather, racehorses piss in a particular way, and the speaker needs to piss in that way. And what is that way, you ask? In a long gushing torrent, as you’ll know if you ever observe a racehorse pissing.

A good analysis. The only thing I’d change is his bracketing for the intended reading to [need to [ piss like a racehorse] ].

This is an example of an attachment ambiguity, in that we could theoretically attach the modifier like a racehorse to the “lower” verb phrase pee or to the “higher” verb phrase need to pee. As Glen explained, the intended attachment is to the lower verb, but why the tendency for at least one person, and probably many others, to attach it up high? I think it’s just because the entire phrase need to pee like a racehorse has the meaning of “need very intensely to urinate,” or as the commenter put it, “need to piss [really] bad.” (I mean, I can’t really think of any reason for needing to pee in a long, gushing torrent, other than that you urgently need to go. Can you?) So if that’s what the entire phrase means, and the “need to pee” part of the meaning is clearly taken up by the need to pee part of the phrase, then it stands to reason that the “bad/intensely” part of the meaning must correspond to what’s left: like a racehorse. And hence the bias toward attaching it to the higher phrase need to pee.

Of course, if need to pee like a racehorse is ambiguous in this way, so is need to pee really bad. I have fun attaching the really bad down low instead of up high, producing dialogues like this:

Doug or Adam: I need to pee really bad!
Neal: OK, go pee really bad!

Now that I think about it, I suppose that’s not such a good thing to tell little boys.

22 Responses to “Like a Racehorse”

  1. Graeme said

    The “Doug or Adam” dialogue reminds me of a card I once received inside a box of other things I got at a garage sale.

    It was the size of a business card, with a picture of a moose head on it. Think Bullwinkle or, if you’re an old Machead, the Talking Moose.

    Anyway, on one side of the card it said “I need someone really bad.” When you flip it over, it read “Are you really bad?”

  2. dgm said

    [phew!]

  3. Bob said

    The first time I heard this expression, probably in the 1960s, I heard it as “I have to pee like a Russian racehorse.” Like you, I didn’t understand, so I asked the person who had used the expression what it meant. The explanation was that in Russia a racehorse’s trainer would tie a string around the horse’s penis an hour or so before the race so that the horse could not urinate. The resulting bladder discomfort would spur the horse to run faster, knowing (presumably from previous training/conditioning) that the string would be removed after the race. Even if this isn’t true — and I’m willing to be it isn’t — it’s a fine explanation.

  4. Neal said

    Graeme: And that reminds me of the line in Madonna’s “Crazy for You”: “I’ve never wanted anyone like this.” Under the “low” attachment for like this, it must be a pretty freaky, weirdo person she wants. I think Yoplait made this joke intentionally a couple of years ago with their “You’ve never eaten yogurt like this before” campaign, featuring people posed in weird positions while eating yogurt.

    Bob: Thanks for the information. If this really is the origin of the phrase, then it sounds like the modifier like a racehorse was originally intended to attach to the entire phrase need to piss after all.

  5. sneaky cat said

    Ok, most racehorses are injected with a diuretic called Lasix (used to prevent exercise induced hemorraghing) 4 hours before they race which makes them pee a lot.

  6. josh said

    bob,

    i think if you tie anything around a horse’s penis you would find yourself in extreme discomfort. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen rodeo events, but a rope is tied around the body of the horse or bull similar to a belt would be, but it cinches the pensis of the animal, thus making it buck and kick to get the rope off.

    The strap is removed and the animal immediatly calms. So, i don’t think this could be how racing horses are trained in russia.

    Sneaky cat’s explanation sounds most sensible.

  7. Ryan said

    I don’t know where you got that ‘rope being tied around the penis in rodeo events’ business. But, the animals in these events actually buck because the rider is driving his spurs into their sides.

  8. RON said

    Ryan,

    Have you EVER been to a rodeo??

  9. lizzypoo84 said

    The animals at a rodeo are not bucking because they’re being spurred or because anything is touching their penis. In fact, there is a belt cinched around the abdomen (excluding the penis) that creates discomfort. It has nothing to do with spurs or penises.

  10. Dan said

    This article made me laugh. Poor racehorses. In their minds, they’re just running to the nearest restroom.

  11. UNKNOWN said

    this is hilarious….

  12. your mom said

    omg, this is sooo funny.

    i say this all the time, and my dad says he has since he was in high school.

    but personally, i’m voting for the diuretic theory.

    maybe the russian part was added for coolness?

  13. Kamille said

    lol Funny post! I use this phrase a lot. I have a bladder the size of a chickpea, so every micturition emergency for me is akin to the racehorse’s predicament.

    But…umm…question: What if the Russian racehorse is female?

  14. JP said

    You all seem like DOPES. In reality, one can assume that ANY horse at all is invariably comparative to a human pissing…at ANY stage. A human will generally piss SO much less then ANY horse, the comparison should, by proxy, become irrelevant. “PISSING like a racehorse” as a comment is merely an exaggeration dealing with the amount of urine excreted from the horse at any given time. NO human is capable of holding THAT amount of fluid in it’s body EVER. (IF anyone has a video to dispel that i would LOVE to see that). FINAL SUMMATION: A human cannot “Piss like a racehorse”…or ANY other horse for that matter. We, in society, speak in “slang” that is composed of many different aspects of speaking, and deals with how one is attempting to convery oneself. The comparison of a horse to man in a urination sense can really not ever be made on a serious sense. It can only be made as an exaggeration as to the fact that one needs to expel urine at a larger rate than normal…as a horse normally does. Therefore, i concluse, one can only “piss like a racehorse” in a figurative sense…no matter what kind of horse you are talking about.

    I’m a philosophy major. BYe!

  15. Tarnah said

    Do racehorses piss any more (or more frequently or whatever the term is referring to) than a non racing horse?

  16. Neal said

    A reader named Ed was unable to post this comment, so I’m posting it for him. He found some more information on the origin of this phrase in an entry at Phrase Finder. Thanks, Ed!

  17. […] a blog. I learned this when I saw a spike in my hits, from people that Jennings sent here to read Like a Racehorse. Thanks, Ken! And for the Jennings fans who clicked on the banner and found themselves here, you […]

  18. Ben said

    As a former philosophy major, I couldn’t help but notice that JP, the unnecessarily hostile philosophy major in post 14 above, was commenting on race horse pissing during the evening of Valentine’s Day 2006. Philosophy may not help you win a date with the ladies, but it sure doesn’t qualify you to comment on horse piss.

  19. Dallas dude said

    Well i haven’t found the answer yet. I like the tied penis theory, it’s funny even if it’s not true. The lasix theory sounds weak to me. As an RX tech I know lasix is used to induce urination not stop hemorrhage.

    I often thought perhaps it alludes to the idea that one who has to pee so baly that he is in a similar hurry as a rushin’ (read: rushing, not russian) racehorse. The fact that others have heard the phrase “… pee like a racehorse” lends some creedence to this theory.

  20. Jp said

    The phrase “need to piss like a racehorse” came about simply because trainers used to feed horses diuretics prior (just before) a race to make them lighter. Therefore, to elaborate on the effect of diuretics and what they are; they are a class of drugs that elevates the rate of urination and thus provides a means of forced diuresis. Ultimately, this was done to make the horse lighter prior to the race, so they still would have an elevated level of water in the skeletal muscles, be lighter (hoping for an edge over the competition) because the diuretics release any addition water with no adverse consequences of dehydration on the racehorses.

    That’s where the phrase “need to piss like a racehorse” came from and is the only reason…

  21. Ricky said

    My Great grandfather raced horses in Russia. It is true about the string and the need to pee.

  22. @ JP: what makes you so sure?

    All of the explanations given here make sense.

    To me it implies urgency, in the feeling like you need to go right away or you’re going to explode kind of way.

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