Usage of the phrase “That’s a horse apiece” from Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, where the term is widely used to describe an equivalency, tie situation or lack of preference.
As a boy growing up in the ’50s, we played games of “Horse” – most often basketball, where participants would attempt to shoot baskets in a given manner from a selected point on the court. For instance, a jump shot from the foul line, or a layup from eight feet right of the basket. If you missed a shot which was made successfully by at least one of the other players, you were given a “horse” – assigned a letter, beginning with “H”. When you eventually got all five letters (h, o, r, s & e) you were “out” of the competition and the remaining competitors normally began again from scratch. When each of the two last competitors had one letter, they were said to have “a horse apiece.”
We were part of a community which 50 years before my childhood spoke German almost exclusively. “Horse apiece” came to be the direct synonym for “machts nichts” (doesn’t matter) and is now part of our vernacular. People who have never known the relationship to the schoolyard game use “Horse apiece” as a ubiquitous part of their daily conversation. It’s a lot easier to say than “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.”
There is a highly popular dice game (usually called Aces) in central Wisconsin. I won’t go to far into the details, but once the game is whittled down to two players, they play for best 2 out of 3. If I lost the first of three, I’d have “a horse on me”. If my opponent lost the second of three he’d have “a horse on him”, leading to the full count of dice games known as “a horse apiece”.
I’m not saying this is where it comes from, however the phrase is very commonly used in central Wisconsin bars (which there are a lot of).
Tom and Liz: The “horse apiece” question comes up a lot, and I’m struck by how often it comes from Wisconsin listeners, although that may be just a coincidence. I hadn’t heard the dice story, so that’s useful to know.
I did grow up playing “Horse” in Kentucky (where basketball’s the unofficial state religion).
I have a lot of fun with the saying “a horse apiece.” It is commonly used in the northern 2/3 of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan yet unknown in adjacent Minnesota, except perhaps on the iron range in NE Minn. I know 2 people from NE Minnesota who say it. A lot of culture like food was carried from iron mines in the UP of Michigan and northern Wisconsin to the iron mines in NE Minnesota so there may be a link there. Or they just learned it from Wisconsinites like I did (we all work together).
The occurrence of “a horse apiece” in the Upper Midwest is pretty much defined by the Wisconsin state line on the west. People on the Wisconsin side of the St Croix River use the expression every day, while people a mile away on the Minnesota side have never even heard the expression (and there is an interstate and short bridge connecting the 2 areas!).
I recently started to work a lot with northern Wisconsinites and UP-ers so now hear the saying often. The first time I heard it I thought people were saying: “a horse of peace.”
I have asked many people from Madison in southern Wisconsin if they know the expression– and universally I get a blank stare and claims that “no one in Wisconsin says that.”
I have asked three people from the UP of Michigan and they all say “a horse apiece” (as well as use the verb “pank” and say “eh” just like Canadians but those are other issues!).
I also mentioned the saying once at a party in Minnesota, and a 70 year old man perked up and said that people in Minnesota used to say it, but that he never hears it anymore.