The other night I woke yelping from the pain of a charley horse in my left leg. Despite the fog of sleep and the strangling cramp, I remembered to push with my heel (my mom’s perennial advice), and that helped. As I tried to settle back down to sleep, I wondered who Charley was, and how the name came about. It took me a few days to recall those questions while conscious, but I finally did, and here’s what I found.
I consulted the language radio show A Way with Words, and learned that the term first began to show up in print in the 1880s in the context of baseball, but there’s no definitive origin story there. Co-host Grant Barrett offers what he says is the “best bad theory” about the history. In the 19th century in cities and towns in the US and in the UK, broken-down horses were often given to night watchmen. Both the watchmen and the horses tended to be old and tired, and limps in either were not uncommon. The watchmen were known as Charleys. From there it’s a short distance to the idea that with a cramp in your calf you might walk with a limp, like an old horse belonging to a Charley.
The muscle spasm we call a charley horse shows up elsewhere under different names. The word the Chinese use means pulling veins. Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France and Israel all use some variation of wooden leg. In Guam the cramp is called a rat; in Iceland it’s either a stiff lock or a struggling cramp. Italian terms include donkey bite and water buffalo. The Malay word means lizard knot; the Nederlandish is ice leg. In Portugal it’s a paralyzer, and one Turkish term means “turn into meat.” I wish I weren’t so well able to relate to some of these images.
Though there are various theories about what causes charley horses in general, it’s even harder to say what exactly is behind a given episode. Still, dehydration, or a possible lack of various minerals, like magnesium, potassium or calcium, get mentioned. I’ll be looking into my options (more milk and bananas?), and I’ll be thankful that my charley horses usually last for just a few seconds. I understand it’s not unheard of for them to last up to a day.