50 terms with origins in rural America
50 terms with origins in rural America
Rural America has served up a delicious spread of choice terms and phrases over the years. Many of the adroit turns of phrase have made their way into everyday usage across the country. Stacker looked at 50 of the most colorful and descriptive terms with origins in rural America. We drew from The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Cambridge English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, literary and writing guides, online blogs, English-language teaching guides, collections of folk phrases, and dictionaries of slang.
Some we use knowingly, like barking up the wrong tree, jumping on the bandwagon, and grabbing a bull by the horns. Other phrases we may use without realizing their origins, like a piece of cake, a kangaroo court, or being as happy as a clam.
Several of the most colorful idioms come from farming, like flying the coop and living in high cotton. Hunting gave us loaded for bear and barking up the wrong tree. The world of horses provided several apt phrases, like being a dead ringer, full of beans, or raring to go. Then there’s being long in the tooth or being rode hard and put up wet.
A few come from days of slavery, when people in bondage needed to be secretive about what they were saying. Many are quite old, dating back to the U.S. Civil War, the Old West, the Gold Rush, America’s pioneering days, and times when souvenirs might be wooden nickels and cigars were awarded as prizes at state fairs.
Some have clear and concise origins, but most roots are more obscure. Many explanations are educated guesses or theories. For more than a few phrases, there are multiple theories about their origins. So, if the creek don’t rise, quit whistling Dixie, get a wiggle on, and let’s see what pans out.
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Piece of cake
In the 19th century, it was common to award cakes to winners at competitions, hence the idea of something being a "piece of cake." "Cakewalk," which has a similar meaning, was actually the name of a dance competition. Plantation owners in the pre-Civil War South served as judges at cakewalks, wherein enslaved people went through a series of complicated dance moves that were most likely done in mockery of the plantation owners.
In New England, visitors who arrive in the autumn to enjoy the colorful foliage, and are a big part of the rural tourist economy, are “leaf peepers.” The term most likely came from Vermont in the mid-20th century.
If the creek don't rise
“If the creek don’t rise” means if things go as planned. It has origins in the South, where a rising creek could mean dangerous currents or flooding.
A “goose egg” refers to a team or competitor failing to score. It comes from the shape of a goose egg resembling a zero.
Agitate the gravel
“To agitate the gravel” is to leave in a hurry. It dates to a time when driveways and parking lots were most likely covered with gravel.
The term “acid test” dates to the gold rush in the mid-1800s, when acid was used to check the purity of gold. The test involved using nitric acid, which has the ability to dissolve every metal but gold. The term became a pun in the 1960s when it was used to refer to LSD parties hosted by author Ken Kesey.
All hat, no cattle
“All hat, no cattle” refers to someone who talks big but has no substance. It’s an insult with Texas roots.
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Bark up the wrong tree
To “bark up the wrong tree” comes from the early 1800s in America, when it was popular to hunt with packs of dogs. Today it means to have the wrong idea or ask the wrong person.
Cute as a bug’s ear
“Cute as a bug’s ear” was used in the 1800s—and is thought to have originated in Texas—to describe someone adorable. It may have started out with the word acute, referring to insects’ ability to react quickly. It’s often shortened to cute as a bug.
“Get go,” meaning from the beginning, originated in Black English. It was used in print by Toni Cade Bambara, a 1960s civil rights activist, who wrote fiction set in the rural South and in Harlem.
“No dice” means no deal or no result. It comes from states where gambling was illegal in the early 1900s. Gamblers would hide the dice if they were caught, and courts would toss out gambling cases if no dice were found.
Heard it through the grapevine
“Heard it through the grapevine” means learning something through gossip or rumor. One theory dates it to the informal way of communication through what was called a grapevine telegraph for people who were enslaved. Another theory ascribes the phrase to the early telegraph system in the 19th century that used miles of wire strung from poles that resembled grapevine trellises.
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Jump on the bandwagon
To “jump on the bandwagon,” or to adopt an idea once it is successful or popular, stems from early America when musicians rode in a wagon on their way to a parade or rally, and people would rush to follow.
“Raring to,” as in very eager, seems to have originated in the early 19th-century South. It’s likely to have come from rearing, when a horse rises up on its hind legs in excitement or agitation.
Happy as a clam
The phrase is believed to have originally been “happy as a clam at high tide,” popular in the early 1800s in the Northeast. It refers to the fact that clams are dug up in low tide but unreachable and safe from human harvest at high tide.
“Kangaroo court” goes back to the 19th-century U.S. frontier days, when roaming judges tried legal cases. They were paid by the trial, and a kangaroo court refers to the image of them hopping from case to case to try as many as possible.
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Grab the bull by its horns
To “grab the bull by its horns” means to confront something head-on, without delay. One theory has it originating in the American West, where an effective way for ranchers to catch and subdue a bull was to grab its horns and wrest it to the ground.
Full of beans
Meaning energetic, “full of beans” is thought to come from late-1800s horse racing, when horses would be fed beans to make them gassy in the belief that they would run faster.
Open a can of worms
To “open a can of worms” means to cause a multitude of problems in the process of trying to solve one. It dates to the 1950s when fishermen would buy sealed metal cans of earthworms for bait, and opening the can to get one worm could mean many would crawl out.
Long in the tooth
Referring to being old, the term “long in the tooth” can first be found in a South Dakota newspaper in 1889, when a prospective buyer was trying to judge the age of a horse. Horses’ teeth keep growing through their lives—although they are ground down as the horses eat—and so are used to determine their age.
The phrase “upper hand” comes from determining which team bats first in playground baseball games. Opposing team captains would grasp a bat, starting at the bottom, and alternate their hands until reaching the top. The player holding the bat at the top had the upper hand.
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Close but no cigar
To come “close but no cigar” refers to almost but not quite winning or succeeding. According to one theory, it dates to the 1800s when country fairs would hand out cigars as prizes to game winners. The phrase would be shouted out when a player came close to winning to attract an audience.
To “whistle Dixie” is to have unrealistic expectations. It comes from the U.S. Civil War-era song “Dixie” and the failed hope of a Confederate victory.
Up the river
To go “up the river” means to go to prison. It originally referred to prisoners sent to Sing-Sing Prison, about 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City.
Meaning a vagrant or a wanderer, the word “hobo” is traced to common usage at the end of the 19th century in the U.S. West. One origin may be the word hawbuck, meaning country bumpkin, and another is workers’ call to one another of “ho boy” when building the railroads.
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Shoot from the hip
To “shoot from the hip” means to act or speak impulsively without much forethought. It comes from the American West, when a gunslinger would fire from the hip without taking the weapon out of the holster. The shot would be more quick than accurate.
Sell someone down the river
Today to “sell someone down the river” means to betray them. Unfortunately, its origins date back to the racist time of slavery, when enslaved people were sent South down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, usually to pick cotton and suffer the atrocities of the slave trade.
Madder than a wet hen
To be “madder than a wet hen” is to be extremely angry. It's rooted in the old-time practice of Southern farmers to dunk brooding, quarrelsome hens in cold water so they could collect their eggs.
Have a conniption
To “have a conniption” is to throw a fit or tantrum. It comes from the South, where some think it's a version of the word corruption, as in someone being corrupted by the devil.
Living in high cotton
To be “living in high cotton” means to be living well. It originated in the American South, where cotton was a source of wealth. “We’re living in high cotton.”
Rode hard and put up wet
Looking “rode hard and put up wet” means looking worn out, bedraggled, or tired. At a ranch or stable, a horse that has run a lot works up a sweat and needs to be walked and cooled down to dry off.
As drunk as Cooter Brown
“Cooter Brown” was a figure in Southern stories who lived on the Mason-Dixon line during the Civil War. To avoid having to serve on either side, legend has it, he stayed drunk for the length of the war.
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That dog won’t hunt
“That dog won’t hunt” refers to something that is defective or doesn’t function properly. In the South, it’s a term derived from hunting.
Get a wiggle on
To “get a wiggle on” is a phrase heard in South Dakota. It means to hurry up.
To “pan out” means to succeed, and it comes from gold mining, when miners panned for gold in stream beds. They would put the water and gravel in a shallow pan and swirl it around, making the heavier gold sink to the bottom.
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10 miles of dirt road
To look like “10 miles of dirt road” is to look pretty bad. It’s a popular phrase in Wyoming, where there’s plenty of dirt roads.
A duck fit is a temper tantrum or sometimes laughter. The American idiom comes from the sound of a duck, particularly an angry one.
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