words: Horseplay

"A fair degree of horseplay" was Judge Alistair McCallum's description of the goings-on at a West Yorkshire police station where a chauvinistic policeman from Moorbottom, Cleckheaton, had fondled a couple of WPCs. It was the sort of remark we have learnt to expect from otherwise sensible men when they put on the long wig. You can imagine the young McCallum in his roaring Oxford days, galumphing down the Giler to put a chamber- pot on top of the Martyrs' Memorial (otherwise known as the Maggers' Memaggers). That would have been horseplay; and it's 30 years' march from the police canteen. A quaintish word, best heard spoken, it seems to me, from the depths of leather armchairs.

It was already in use by the 1590s. Thomas Middleton, the Ayckbourn of his day, has a comedian in The Mayor of Queensborough say: "We have a play wherein we use a horse," to which the mayor replies: "Fellow, you use no horse-play in my house," pointing out that he has just had the floors polished. Horses on stage can certainly turn serious drama into farce, but I rather think this was a pun (and how they loved them!) in which case there would have been no point to it unless the two meanings (a play with a horse or two in it, and what the OED calls "rough, coarse or boisterous play") had arrived independently of each other, as it were, horses being just as large and vulgar off the stage as on it.

Why, though, is the noble creature and willing servant so often associated with coarseness? It cannot be just because stallions are symbols of sexual prowess, though sex is always good for a leer or a chuckle. A horse laugh is not accepted in polite society. But I doubt whether any self- respecting horse would want to model itself on the policeman from Moorbottom.