Word and Phrase Origins

Where did the term nervous nellie come from?

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2010-02-26 23:38:02

Ever heard the phrase, "Whoa, Nellie"? Nell, or Nellie, was an

late 19th to early 20th century nickname for a female horse. It was

particularly applied to one hitched to a wagon or buggy, probably

because those mares were either the only one owned by the household

or were the horse most tamed for the harness. Remember, this was

the world before and on the cusp of the automobile. A horse was

very important for transportation. Being close to the family, much

like a pet, the horse would tend to be called by a name; a common

name for a mare was Nell, or at least it was common enough that if

you referred to a mare, you might use the term Nell. Horses can be

jumpy or anxious in novel or quickly changing situations, a

characteristic of the crowding of small towns and cities during

this era. The horse could always be surprised or frightened by

something around the next corner, or the ever changing activity

around them. Hence the term Nervous Nellie came to be applied to a

horse when it became jumpy in these situations.

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