A greenhorn is generally anyone who is inexperienced, immature, or gullible. In other words, a rookie. A greenhorn might also be a recent immigrant who hasn’t yet learned the ways of his or her new country.
Or maybe it’s this new year, 2020, which is just about seven hours old!
The word is usually attributed to cowboys who noticed the horns on young cattle had a greenish tint. So, in the Old West, a person who was inexperienced in his craft or trade was called a greenhorn.
The word originally referred to young animals with immature horns, like deer and elk. But the use of green to denote immaturity also comes from the forest, since green timber is that which isn’t yet seasoned.
Another possible origin goes back to the 1600s and 1700s and jewelry manufacturing. Some items were made from horn and set into silver frames. The horn was usually decorated with a figure, often a head, which was impressed in the brown horn by heating the horn to a specific temperature and shaping it over a mold. Too high a temperature would result in the horn ending up green rather than the original and desired brown. Such an outcome was often produced by apprentices, and thus they came to be called greenhorns.
According to a different source, “greenhorn” first appeared in the 1400s, meaning a young ox with new, or “green” horns. By about 1650, “greenhorn” was being applied to newly enlisted army recruits, and shortly thereafter came to mean any inexperienced person.
Still, it’s probably better to be a greenhorn than a “tinhorn,” which since the late 1800s has been slang for a pretentious and flashy person. The original “tinhorns” were gamblers in the Old West, addicted to a low-stakes game in which dice were tumbled in a small metal contraption known as a “tin horn.” Serious gamblers looked down on such “tinhorn gamblers” and, by the end of the 1800s, “tinhorn” had come to mean cheap and contemptible.
Since many of us are naive and can easily be scammed, “greenhorn” can also sometimes mean “sucker” or “simpleton.” Not me, of course. At least not since I was a year or two younger.
NOTE: I talked about “balderdash” in my last article, three days ago, and a reader came up with information that my research entirely missed. Balderdash is a board game! It is, according to one site, a “clever repackaging of the parlor game Dictionary, Balderdash contains several cards with real words nobody has heard of. After one of those words has been read aloud, players try to come up with definitions that at least sound plausible, because points are later awarded for every opposing player who guessed that your definition was the correct one. Versions of the game as a parlor game go back at least as far as 1970, although Balderdash itself was not published until 1984.”
I’m sorry I missed that. Word games are my kind of game!