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Sorry We Asked

September 06, 1987

Knowledge can be a sorrowful burden. A friend of ours--a lover of humanity and all other creatures great and small--rediscovered that heavy fact the other day when he innocently set out to relieve a modest itch of curiosity. He found out what he wanted to know, and he has been down in the dumps ever since.

It all began in the course of casual conversation when someone referred to the "horse latitudes," and someone else asked just what they were and how they came to be so named. There are a number of ways to find the answers to such questions. One of the most pleasant is to thumb through the pages of the estimable "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable," a book first published in 1870 and still, revised and updated, one of the more interesting reference works around.

The horse latitudes, says Brewer's, refers to the region of the ocean approximately 30 degrees north and south of the Equator--an area that might be visualized as extending from the bottom of Brazil to the top of Florida--that is characterized by light winds and calm seas. So far, so good. But whence the designation "horse"? Perhaps, suggests Brewer's, giving the unsuspecting researcher no hint of the grim information that is about to follow, "from the fact that sailing ships carrying horses to America and the West Indies were sometimes obliged to jettison their cargoes when becalmed in these latitudes through shortage of water for the animals."

So there it is--blunt, naked and ugly. When water supplies ran low and the choice came down to letting the crew take long showers or looking out for the cargo, it was the crew that had the votes to win every time. And every time had to have been often indeed. The sad but unavoidable inference must be that the horse latitudes didn't get their name just because once upon a time a few nags were given the old heave-ho. The horse latitudes had to have been so named only after entire shiploads and herds of mares and stallions, colts and fillies were made to walk the plank.

Did any of these abandoned creatures safely reach land? We would like to think so, and we have tried to cheer up our melancholic friend by insisting that surely they must have. It has done no good. He remains, like the very sailing ships from which the unfortunate horses were expelled, deep in the doldrums--a word defined by the always-reliable Brewer's as "a condition of depression, slackness or inactivity; hence applied by sailors to regions where ships were lkely to be becalmed." And, it might be added, regarded by horses ever since as a good place to stay away from.

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