A Dark Horse: Definition, Meaning and Origin

Last Updated on
May 23, 2023

The phrase "a dark horse" refers to a person or thing whose abilities or potential are not initially apparent but eventually become prominent or successful. Often, it's used in the context of competitions or situations where an underdog unexpectedly shines.

In short:

"A dark horse" represents an individual or entity whose success or potential is not initially recognized but eventually emerges as a prominent or victorious figure.

What Does "A Dark Horse" Mean?

The idiom "a dark horse" is often used to describe an individual or entity that surpasses expectations to achieve success, especially when their abilities or potential are initially overlooked or underestimated. The element of surprise is central to the use of this phrase, whether in a competition, a professional scenario, or any situation involving a prediction of outcomes.

Key aspects of the idiom's meaning include:

  • Represents a surprising success or achievement
  • Usually associated with competition or performance
  • Embodies the idea of an underestimated individual or entity coming to the fore

Where Does "A Dark Horse" Come From?

The term "a dark horse" refers to a person or thing that is unexpectedly successful or victorious. Its origins can be traced back to the world of horse racing, where dark-colored horses were considered less likely to win races than their lighter counterparts. However, on occasion, a "dark horse" would emerge and triumph over its more favored competitors, often surprising spectators and leaving them in awe. The term was popularized by the novel "The Young Duke" by Benjamin Disraeli, where he referred to a horse as a "dark horse."

Historical Example

"A dark horse, which had never been thought of, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph."

- The Young Duke, Benjamin Disraeli, 1831

10 Examples of "A Dark Horse" in Sentences

Here are some examples of using the idiom in sentences:

  • The couple proved to be a dark horse in the dance tournament and was hailed as a dynamic duo.
  • No matter the challenge, always remember that this, too, shall pass, and even a dark horse has the potential to surprise and succeed.
  • No one expected the startup to do well, but it turned out to be a dark horse in the industry.
  • The small nation was a dark horse in the soccer tournament, making it all the way to the finals.
  • John, a dark horse in the competition, managed to succeed by marching to the beat of his own drum.
  • She was quiet and unassuming in the office but a dark horse when it came to closing deals.
  • The fans are fawning over an indie film that turns out as a dark horse in the festival.
  • He’s a dark horse in the race for the student council presidency.
  • She’s a dark horse in the art world; her talent was hidden until her recent exhibition.
  • Despite a lack of support, the dark horse rookie outperformed everyone out of spite.

Examples of "A Dark Horse" in Pop Culture

The phrase "a dark horse" frequently appears in media, especially in relation to sports, politics, and other competitions.

Some examples include:

  • "Dark Horse" is a popular song by Katy Perry, which uses the phrase metaphorically.
  • "Dark Horse" is a comic book publisher known for publishing works of creators outside the mainstream.
  • "Dark Horse" (2011) is a comedy/drama film by Todd Solondz

Other/Different Ways to Say "A Dark Horse"

There are several alternative expressions that convey a similar meaning to "a dark horse."

Some of these include:

  • An underdog
  • A sleeper
  • An unknown quantity
  • A long shot
  • An unsung hero

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "A Dark Horse"

  • Is "a dark horse" used positively or negatively?

Typically, "a dark horse" is used in a positive context to describe someone who unexpectedly outperforms or succeeds.

  • Is "dark horse" a polite phrase?

Yes, "a dark horse" is a neutral idiom. It does not have any offensive, insulting or impolite connotations. It can be used in any polite company or formal setting.

  • Where does the idiom "a dark horse" come from?

The phrase originates from horse racing and was popularized by Benjamin Disraeli's novel "The Young Duke".

  • Is it appropriate in professional settings?

Yes, it's appropriate for professional contexts, such as describing a surprise winner in a business competition or an under-recognized talent in a team.

  • Can "a dark horse" describe a surprise negative outcome?

Usually, the phrase is used to denote a surprising success, not failure. However, context and tone can change its interpretation.

  • Is "dark horse" an example of a metaphor or a simile?

"A dark horse" is an example of a metaphor. It uses the concept of an unexpected victorious racehorse to metaphorically represent someone or something that wins or succeeds against the odds in any situation. It is a figurative rather than a literal comparison.

  • Can you use the term in non-competitive contexts?

Yes, it can be used in any context where someone's true abilities or potential are initially overlooked but eventually recognized.

  • Is the phrase common in literature?

Yes, it's often used in literature to describe a character who surprises others with their abilities or success.

  • What's the difference between "a dark horse" and "an underdog"?

While both refer to unexpected success, "an underdog" is someone who is expected to lose, while "a dark horse" is someone whose abilities or potential are not initially recognized.

  • Can "a dark horse" refer to a thing or concept?

Yes, it can also refer to ideas, products, or any other entity that unexpectedly succeeds or gains recognition.

Final Thoughts About "A Dark Horse"

To sum it up, the idiom "a dark horse" describes an unexpected winner or someone whose abilities or success were initially overlooked. This phrase is applicable across various settings and subjects, ranging from sports to business to personal achievement.

Key aspects of the phrase:

  • Denotes an unexpected success or winner
  • Often used in competitive contexts
  • It can refer to people, teams, companies, or even ideas

While the phrase is versatile and widely recognized, it's crucial to remember that its usage implies a degree of surprise or unexpectedness. Therefore, it's most appropriate in contexts where someone or something exceeds expectations or achieves success against the odds.

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