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Where did that phrase come from - Take the bull by the horns
Stan St. Clair

By Stan St. Clair

This idiom means to take charge of a difficult situation and bring it under submission and control. It has been speculated that it originated in Spain or America and possibly derived from either bull running or Spanish bullfights in which the banderilleros aim darts into the necks of the bulls, then wave red cloaks and grab them by the horns to hold their heads down. 

The practice of grasping bulls by the horns continued in the early American West and subsequently in rodeos and is known as “bulldogging.”

However, in spite of another major reference work dating the first citation of this expression in English to 1873, it was in use 70 years earlier at the dawn of the 19 century, when we find a definition and explanation of the expression in Arciologia of Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Society of Antiquaries of London, 1803:

“A proverb in use at the present day is grounded upon this ancient practice of signifying conquest by the capture of the horns. ‘To take the bull by the horns,’ is an equivalent phrase for ‘to conquer.’ When Demetrius Phalereus was endeavouring to persuade Philip, the father of Perseus, king of Macedon, to make himself master of the cities of Ithome and Acrocorinthus, as a necessary step to the conquest of Peloponnosus, he is reported to have used the following expression, ‘Having caught hold of both horns, you will possess the ox itself.’”

The reference given was an ancient Greek manuscript Strabo, Lib. VIII, page 361. Strabo (64/63 B.C. – ca. 24 A.D.) was a Greek philosopher and historian, and this refers to book 8 of his famed seventeen-volume Geographcia.

In this trying time when so many events are being cancelled because of coronavirus fears, we all need to “take the bull by the horns” and use common sense, sans panic. Just listen to those “in the know” and practice social distancing, wash your hands and stay away from crowds.

 

If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at stan@stclair.net.