Chunk of the day: dark horse

A week or so ago, I gave a talk at a conference for English language teachers in Liestal, in the north of Switzerland. While I was there, I bumped into an old friend of mine that I hadn’t seen each other for quite some time. Luckily, we managed to find time for a coffee and a chat. We had a lot to catching up to do and as we both work – at least some of the time – in publishing, there was a lot of shop talk – talk about our work – as well.

In the course of our conversation, my friend suddenly let it slip that she was doing a PhD in her spare time – in Philosphy! “Wow!” I said, in my most impressed tone of voice, “you’re a dark horse!” At which point I found she’d not heard the phrase before (she’s Danish and although she speaks near-perfect English, there are still little gaps here and there in her vocabulary), and had to explain it!

If you call a friend a dark horse, it’s usually because you’ve just found out they possess skills you’d not known about before – and (possibly) hadn’t expected them to have. We may also exclaim that we didn’t know they could do whatever it is they can do, that we had no idea – and then maybe add that they’re full of hidden talents. Exchanges like this are quite common:

I didn’t know you spoke Arabic.

> Yeah, yeah. I actually lived out in Yemen for four years when I was younger.

Seriously? I had no idea! Well, you are a dark horse, aren’t you? Full of hidden talents.

> Yeah. Well, you know. I don’t like to boast about it or anything.

However, in sports journalism, teams or contestants who are certainly not the favourites, but who are believed to maybe be capable of causing an upset by pulling off a shock victoryagainst all the odds – are also often referred to as dark horses. For instance, several sports writers have tipped Liverpool as dark horses to win this season’s Premier League, while Atletico Madrid are dark horses in the UEFA Champions League, and are obviously under less pressure – as all the attention is on the favourites Manchester City and Barcelona.

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  • Do you know anyone who has revealed themselves to be a bit of a dark horse?
  • Do you have any hidden talents that you don’t talk about very often?
  • Can you think of any times when a dark horse has won a competition – against the odds?
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