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'One-Trick Pony' Has Limits

An Icelandic horse, left, and a Shetland pony play at a farm near Frankfurt, Germany, January 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
'One-Trick Pony' Has Limits
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And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

On today's program, we talk about an animal idiom. What do you think it means to be a one-trick pony?

Let's start with a pony. That is a small horse. And one definition of a “trick” is a special act or skill. So, pony tricks can be fun to see. But who would want to watch a pony that does the same trick over and over?

A one-trick pony is a person that has only one skill. So, the term is an insult. A one-trick pony is of low value. A one-trick pony can also describe a person who has had success only once.

So, for example, let’s say you know a champion weightlifter. He is big and strong and successful in the sport. But it is the only thing he does: He eats, drinks, and sleeps weightlifting. You could truthfully tell him he is a one-trick pony. But, be prepared to run away as soon as the words leave your mouth. He probably won’t be very happy.

Some word experts say the idiom "one-trick pony" comes from the circus. A circus pony that can only do one trick is not going to entertain a crowd for very long.

The term "one-trick pony" appeared around the turn of the twentieth century. Within about fifty years, the term had become an idiom. Note that one-trick is usually hyphenated. And if you have more than one, you have one-trick ponies.

Now, a one-trick pony usually describes a person. But sometimes it can describe other things, such as a company. If a company only does one thing such as make ice cream cones, it might be called a one-trick pony. However, that usage is less common.

Now, let’s hear two friends use the expression in a conversation.

Bagpipe player, Nate Silva, and drummer play at a Maryland Renaissance Festival.
Bagpipe player, Nate Silva, and drummer play at a Maryland Renaissance Festival.

A: Guess who will perform at my outdoor party next week? Sam the Entertainer!

B: Please, not Sam the Entertainer! He’s anything BUT entertaining.

A: What do you mean? He has such energy!

B: He may be “energetic,” but he’s a one-trick pony.

A: Sam is the best bagpipe player around.

B: But that’s ALL he does. I hope your guests like loud bagpipe music.

A: I'm sure they'll love it! ! I've invited all my Ren-Fest friends!

Now, keep in mind that people who specialize in a certain area of their work are not called one-trick ponies. They are specialists. For example, I would never call a doctor specializing in children’s illnesses a one-trick pony. She is a specialist and has many skills to do her job.

And we here at VOA Learning English specialize in using stories to teach English. But I hope you don’t consider us one-trick ponies.

And that’s all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories.

Until next time...I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

idiom – n. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own

insult – n. a rude or offensive act or statement : something that insults someone

champion – adj. first among all contestants or competitors

eats, drinks, and sleeps – idiom : to have a strong passion for something; to think about it constantly

circus – n. a traveling show that is often performed in a tent and that typically includes trained animals, clowns, acrobats, etc.

entertain – v. to perform for (an audience) : to provide amusement for (someone) by singing, acting, etc.

hyphenated – adj. containing or linked with a hyphen

conversation – n. a talk between two or more people : the act of talking

Ren-Fest – n. ​short for Renaissance Festival : A festival held to recreate the arts and history of the Renaissance. Generally held outside and on weekends and people usually dress up for it in period clothing.