50 terms with origins in rural America

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July 9, 2020
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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.

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Leaf peeper

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.

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Ragamuffin

In the South, a “ragamuffin” is someone who is looking sloppy or ragged. In the late 1800s, children dressed up on Thanksgiving Day and beg for fruit or candy in what became known as Ragamuffin Day, and some towns held parades for children in costume.

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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.

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Ballpark figure

The phrase “ballpark figure” stems from commentators who guessed the size of country crowds by estimating the number of spectators. It’s believed to have started with sizing up baseball fans.

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Goose egg

A “goose egg” refers to a team or competitor failing to score. It comes from the shape of a goose egg resembling a zero.

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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.

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Acid test

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.

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Hit the hay

In the 1800s, mattresses were often sacks filled with hay. Before going to bed, people would hit the hay to fluff up the filling and chase any bugs away. Today, to “hit the hay” means to go to bed.

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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.

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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.

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Get go

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.

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No dice

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.

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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.

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Bats in the belfry

To have “bats in the belfry” means to be eccentric or insane. It is an American phrase from the early 20th century referring to bats that lived inside a belltower.

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Raring to

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.

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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.

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Kangaroo court

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Upper hand

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.

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Whistle Dixie

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.

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Dead ringer

A “dead ringer” originated in 19th-century American horse racing, when a horse racing under a fake name was called a ringer, and dead meant exact. Today a dead ringer is an exact copy or resemblance.

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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.

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Hobo

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.

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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.

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Loaded for bear

To be “loaded for bear” is to be extremely well armed and prepared for conflict. It stems from U.S. hunters of brown bears. The species is extremely dangerous, and hunters use more powerful rifles than they would in other types of hunting.

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To peter out

To “peter out” means to dwindle down to nothing. It hearkens to mining in the 1800s, when a vein of ore would produce little after a promising start. The word peter might be linked to saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, an ingredient used in gunpowder.

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Fast as green grass through a goose

To move as “fast as green grass through a goose” means to go very quickly, and it originated in the rural American South.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

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Bootleg

A “bootleg” is an illegal recording of music, movies, concerts, and other productions. The word stems from bootleggers, the makers of illicit alcohol during the U.S Prohibition era. Bootleg, in turn, had its origins in the practice of sneaking a flask of alcohol into the top of a tall boot.

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Get a wiggle on

To “get a wiggle on” is a phrase heard in South Dakota. It means to hurry up.

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At the drop of a hat

Meaning to do something on the spot or with little forethought, the phrase “at the drop of a hat” can be traced to the American West. The signal to start a duel or fight frequently would be someone gesturing or dropping a hat to the ground.

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Pan out

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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Flew the coop

Flew the coop” usually refers to escaping, such as from jail or confinement. It dates to early 20th-century America, and it refers to barnyard chickens fleeing their enclosure.

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Fly off the handle

To “fly off the handle” means to lose control or lose one’s temper. It comes from the dangerous way the head of an axe can come loose from the handle and can be traced to American pioneer days when axes were handmade and ill-fitting heads would come off.

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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.

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Don’t take any wooden nickels

Wooden nickels were made as Depression-era scrip and also as commemorative coins. The phrase “don’t take any wooden nickels” was advice given to country people going to the city not to be fooled or swindled.

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Duck fit

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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