If you’ve ever watched or listened to a sports commentator (or most political pundits, politicians and others who should know much better, or their speechwriters should), you’ve undoubtedly heard them refer to the state of anxiety and anticipation of an athlete (or politician, or dang near anyone?) as “chomping at the bit.” This is incorrect, as any horseperson should know, and common sense should tell the rest of us.

Consider a horse in its stall, impatient to get out and run or otherwise cut loose from its captive state. The phrase actually originated from horse racing, where high-strung, championship-level thoroughbred horses compete, starting out in a very narrow box with gates at front and rear. They are literally pushed into these tiny cells, barely big enough to squeeze them in with a jockey aboard, via the back gate, which is then closed tight. At some point, the signal goes off and the front gate opens and the horse and rider try to get to the finish-line faster than any of the other horse-rider tandems can.

The concept comes from what many, if not all, horses do while waiting in the starting-gate: They make motions with their mouths around the bit between their teeth, the device that restrains them and allows the jockey to control their motions once the race begins. The same thing happens with horses hooked to carts carrying passengers, either out of impatience with the progress, or perhaps just because they do. (I don’t speak “horse” very fluently, so I’ve never found out for sure.)

But let’s take a look at the bit itself. What is it made of? Generally, it’s iron or steel. If that horse were really “chomping” at that bit, how long would it be before that horse was toothless, having worn all the enamel right down to the roots! So what’s the reality?

What these horses are doing is CHAMPING at the bits in their mouths: they essentially gum the metallic surface like some elderly pensioner with his dentures still in the glass; they slide their lips over and around the bit, perhaps keeping their mouths damp in the process. It’s a bit like how some humans (including many who are athletes) chew gum, not only as a nervous habit (and a vast improvement over a cheek full of tobacco) but as a similar kind of mouth-moistener. (It’s also why they spit a lot, but that’s another story.)

So now you know the true use of the phrase; don’t you feel smarter already?