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."