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!

News

April 20, 2018 | NPR · Nearly a quarter century after the end of apartheid, whites still own most of the land in South Africa. A new political party thinks land should be appropriated without compensation and given to blacks. The view is increasingly popular, despite the cautionary tale of Zimbabwe to the north.
 

AP
April 20, 2018 | NPR · In July, law enforcement found James Matthew Bradley Jr. sitting in the front seat of a tractor-trailer with human cargo — 39 undocumented immigrants. Ten passengers died.
 

AP
April 20, 2018 | NPR · Whether you think it’s time or a waste of time, the city of Malibu decided to ban the use of plastic straws, utensils and stirrers as a means of reducing their harmful effects on the environment.
 

Arts & Life

April 20, 2018 | NPR · It’s impossible to watch all the good TV out there. But that’s no reason to shy away from the conversation around the buzziest small-screen delights. David Chen and Joanna Robinson host the podcast Decoding Westworld, and join NPR’s Ailsa Chang to talk about HBO’s Westworld.
 

April 20, 2018 | FA · Anderson, who died April 16, began his career as a street performer specializing in elaborate pranks. He spoke to Fresh Air in 1989 about an illusion in which he pretended to chop off his own hand.
 

April 20, 2018 | FA · The Academy Award-winning filmmaker, who died on April 13, spoke to Fresh Air in 1994 about growing up in the former Czechoslovakia, first under the Gestapo, then under communist rule.
 

Music

AFP/Getty Images
April 20, 2018 | NPR · Conductor Marin Alsop muses on the power of ballet and her memories of watching choreographer George Balanchine bring the music of Tchaikovsky to life with the New York City Ballet.
 

April 20, 2018 | NPR · Chicago jazz mainstay Willie Pickens died this past December at age 86. Revisit his performance with McPartland in this 1997 episode of Piano Jazz.
 

April 20, 2018 | NPR · Swedish musician and DJ Avicii has died at 28. NPR’s Ari Shaprio talks with KCRW’s Jason Bentley about his career.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab