KRCC Operations Manager and weekday afternoon host Mike Procell had been wondering about the etymology of the phrase “pony up.” The Word Detective describes the origin of the phrase as relating to the small horse, and in the late 1700s, specifically as a small amount of money. In question and answer format, here’s the complete posting from The Word Detective:

Dear Word Detective: Do you know the origin of the phrase “pony up” (to pay an account or fine, etc.)? How about “pony keg,” the name for an on-street beer or wine stand, at least in SW Ohio? — Al Harris, via the Internet.

Well, I have a pony question of my own: where the heck is my pony? Every year since I was about five years old I have asked for a pony for my birthday. Now, several decades (ahem) later, I have yet to get my pony. Please don’t give me any guff about a fourth-floor apartment in Manhattan not being a suitable home for a pony. If ponies can make it up those mountains in Scotland, a few flights of stairs should be no problem, and I promise not to take my pony on the subway. As you can see, I have been quite patient, but enough’s enough. Pony up the pony.

The nice thing about your question is that both the uses of “pony” you ask about come from the basic sense of “pony” as “a small horse.” A pony, strictly speaking, is a small breed of horse, rather than simply a young horse, which is called a “foal.” The root of “pony” was the Latin “pullus,” meaning any young animal (which is still with us in the form “pullet,” meaning a young chicken). “Pullus” became the Old French “poulain” (foal), whence came the diminutive “poulenet,” which then trotted over to Scotland and showed up as “powney,” which was later Anglicized to “pony.”

“To pony up” and “pony keg” both embody the “smallness” aspect of “pony.” “Pony” has meant a small amount of money since the late 1700’s, when it specifically meant the sum of twenty-five pounds sterling (which was actually a hefty hunk of change at the time, but go figure). “Pony kegs,” popular at fraternity parties and the like, are smaller than standard tavern-sized kegs, by analogy to a “pony” of liquor, which has meant a small glass of spirits since the mid-1800’s.


2 Responses to Etymology of “Pony Up”

  1. Andrea Chalfin News Dir. says:

    Another consideration (the impetus courtesy of a KRCC volunteer) comes from Psalm 119:33,

    “Legem pone mihi, Domine, viam justificationum tuarum” (“Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statues”).

    It’s a psalm Catholics read on the 25th of each month, according to the book Catholic Trivia: Our Forgotten Heritage by Mark Turnham Elvins (as accessed through a Google Books link).

    Legem pone, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, means “payment of money cash down,” and is associated with the above mentioned psalm correlated to the 25th of the month, which in turn, relates to an old calendar of debts due and payments made.

  2. Mary Ellen says:

    And it brings to mind a popular Western phrase, (time to) Cowboy Up, meaning best translated by the baseball phrase,(time to) Step Up To The Plate. PONY UP, PEOPLE!


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