Sunday, June 20, 2021

Violins, theaters, jails, and ponies? (Wild West Sayings We Use Today)

What do violins, theaters, jails, and ponies have in common? All pertain to the latest list of Wild West sayings we use today. If you enjoy words and their meanings, take a quick break and explore the history of words. Stick around, and below the post, you'll find the latest news from my world of books and writing.

Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 24

Play Second Fiddle

Someone who takes a subservient role to another person is said to play second fiddle.

Historical Reference: This figurative term emerged from the relative importance of violins, more humbly known as fiddles, in an orchestra. Playing second fiddle is viewed as less worthy, and even demeaning. This idiom dates from the early 1800s.

B. H. Malkin used it in his 1809 translation of Gil Blas, a French novel by Alain-RenĂ© Lesage: “I am quite at your service to play second fiddle in all your laudable enterprises.”

Example: I’d rather not play second fiddle to the prom queen in the parade.

Playing to the Gallery

We speak of someone who shows off for an audience (with perhaps questionable sincerity) as ‘playing to the gallery.’

Historical Reference: The highest seating area in a theater was historically known as ‘the gallery.’ Seats in the gallery sold for a lower price than closer ones did. As a result, less-refined spectators laid claim to them. ‘Playing to the gallery’ arose as a slang term by the late-19th century. Rudyard Kipling used the phrase in his first novel, The Light That Failed (1891): “The instant we begin to think about success and the effect of our work—to play with one eye on the gallery—we lose power and touch and everything else.”

Example: Senator Brandmeier’s campaign promises appeal to popular tastes, but he’s only playing to the gallery to ensure his reelection.


Yes, we’re talking about jail. You knew it had to come up in a post about the Wild West, right?

Historical Reference: Pokey is a quaint term for ‘jail’ that appeared by 1919 as an Americanization of the English ‘pogey.’ And what exactly is a pogey, you might well ask. That would be a British poorhouse. The origins of ‘pogey’ are something of a mystery. However, a case can be made for linking ‘pogey’ to the adjective, ‘poky.’

Nowadays, poky might refer to something slow, like a horse. Back in the 19th century, the word described something that quite literally poked out. Hence arose the ‘poke bonnet,’ a hat with a formidable brim. ‘Poky’ also took on the meaning of ‘cramped or confined.’ This is where jail cells come in….

We may never know for certain how we came to use ‘pokey’ to mean ‘jail,’ but it’s a fun word to say.

Example: After getting into a fight, he spent the night in the pokey.

Pony Up

This colorful slang term means ‘lay down your money and pay up.’ Okay, I know what you’re thinking. What do diminutive horses have to do with it? We’ll get to that—well, sort of.

Historical Reference: One school of thought attributes ‘pony up’ to America. Another places the blame on England. You may have guessed by now that the origins of the term are uncertain. Some believe its roots reach all the way back to the sixteenth century as a corruption of ‘legem pone.’ This phrase from Psalm 119 in the Latin Bible was sung on March 25th. That, my friends, happened to be the English quarter day, a date that marked the first payday of the year. Debts were resolved then, too.

Legem pone became associated with debt repayment and came to mean 'payment of money; cash down'. In that sense, the term saw print in Hundreth Good Pointes Husbandry by Thomas Tusser (1570). “Use Legem pone to pay at thy day…”

This intriguing bit of history seems to confirm a British origin for ‘pony up.’ The only fly in the ointment is that the phrase is used almost exclusively in the United States.

Connecticutt’s "The Rural Magazine" (May 1819 edition) contains possibly the earliest written use of 'pony up.' “The afternoon, before the evening, the favoured gentlemen are walking rapidly into the merchant-tailors shops, and very slowly out, unless they ponied up the Spanish.” In this example, ‘Spanish’ is slang for money, but that’s another story.

In the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself which pony runs best—an American or English one. I know which one has my vote.

Questions for You

  • I’m curious whether you knew that a fiddle is also called a violin. I had to look it up, myself.
  • What mental image does ‘the pokey’ dredge up for you? I confess to picturing an inmate watching a slow-moving clock or making marks on the wall, counting down the time until his release.
  • Which seems most likely to you—an American or British origin for pony up?

What’s New with Janalyn Voigt

Long-distance walking is a particular love of mine. Lately, I’m renewing my acquaintance with the joys and, yes, pains of this activity. Deadlines have kept me at my desk for long hours too often in the past months. There’s a price for becoming active again, but I’ll willingly pay it.

This past week, I wrapped up my review of the audiobook for Cheyenne Sunrise, the second novel in the Montana Gold series. Once the narrator makes the corrections my publisher forwards to her, it falls to me to approve them. After that, I’ll learn the publication date for the audiobook. I’ll let you know, once I know. Sharing this story with readers in a whole, new way is a rewarding experience.

If you’d like to know more about my life as a writer and about the books I write, hop on over to the Janalyn Voigt website. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for the mostly-monthly Creative Worlds e-letter.

Latest Release

A preacher’s daughter shouldn’t encourage a troublemaker, no matter what her wayward heart desires.

Liberty has always believed she should marry a man of God, but Jake doesn’t qualify. The promises they’d made at age twelve can’t change that. If only Jake would stop pursuing her, she might keep from falling in love with him. Jake fears he’ll lose Liberty to Beau, the new man in town. He doesn’t trust the smooth-talker—and certainly not with Liberty. Jake and Liberty must each overcome their own false beliefs. Only then can they experience the truth of God’s redeeming love. Read The Promise Tree.

You can step into the Montana Treasure series without having read the Montana Gold books. However, if you prefer to submerge yourself in a fictional world for a while, start with Hills of Nevermore, book 1. The four Montana Gold books are available in print and ebook. As mentioned, audiobook versions have also begun releasing!

Want to know more about the author? Read the official bio:

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers. Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary Agency. Her memberships include American Christian Fiction Writers and Northwest Christian Writers Association. When she's not writing, Janalyn loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors with her family.

Browse books by Janalyn Voigt


  1. Thanks for the post! I did know all of these. I lean toward an English origin for "pony up" with a use quoted in 1570. I wasn't sure if there were slight adjustments in physical style between a fiddle and a violin, but I wasn't bothered enough by it to look it up, lol. And the "pokey" in my mind conjures up a one room building in a boom town or just-established town in the Wild West. How fun....thanks for asking the questions. Good luck with that distance walking....I'm lucky to get my 8/10 of a mile done each day. Walking in summer with bugs, heat and lack of want-to is difficult but I do feel better for it and hope to squeak up to the mile mark on a cool morning sometime soon.

  2. Ha! Apparently, fiddles and violins are the same, except when they are different. :) Here's a link to a fascinating description of the two.

    Best wishes on your walking routine. For me, the want-to part on a consistent basis is the hardest.