This term originated in America. “Horsefeathers,” which is said by J. E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang to be a euphemism for horse-shit, is reported as being coined by the comic-strip artist and writer, Billy de Beck. He was the author of the popular cartoon Barney Google, which often featured dialogues with a horse — his sidekick, Spark Plug. He also created a short cartoon film called Horsefeathers, which appeared in US cinemas in 1928.
Billy de Beck and another writer called Dorgan enjoyed playing with the language and are credited with new coinages, such as gate-crasher and heebie-jeebies. Either could plausibly have coined horsefeathers. The term is likely to have been brought to the public via the popular media as it appears many times in print soon after 1927, which indicates a rapid and widespread take-up that isn’t common for phrases that spread only by word of mouth.
There was also a 1932 film by the Marx Brothers called Horse Feathers, in which Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) is unwisely appointed as the president of Huxley College.
It has been said that only birds have feathers, but the long hair on the lower legs and fetlocks of some breeds of horse, such as Clydesdale, is called “feathering” or “feather.” On some horses, especially draft breeds, the hair can almost cover the hooves. While nearly all horses will grow longer hair on the lower legs and back of the fetlocks in winter, “feather” refers to the particularly long, luxuriant growth that is characteristic of certain breeds.
The phrase is also the name of a band, and of assorted retail establishments. And, finally, we have the “Horse Feathers Cocktail.” Here’s the recipe:
– 2 oz whisky
– 2 dashes bitters
– 4 oz ginger ale (Canada Dry)
Pour all ingredients into a highball glass almost filled with ice cubes. Stir well, and serve.
And if you want to ruin good whisky by mixing it with all those other things, I’ll have to say, “horse feathers!”