One of the ways agrarianism still affects culture is in the form of some idioms in the English language. We thought it would be fun and educational to mention a few, which I obtained from http://www.brownielocks.com/wordorigins.html (of course, others may have different versions of the origins):
No Spring Chicken
New England chicken farmers discovered that chickens born in the Spring bought better prices, rather than old birds that had gone through the winter etc. Sometimes farmers tried to sell the old birds as a new spring born chicken. Smart buyers often complained that a tough fowl was “no spring chicken” and so the term now is used to represent birds (and even people) past their plump and tender years.
Beat Around the Bush
This comes from boar hunting in which the noblemen hired workers to walk through the woods beating the branches and making noises to get the animals to run towards the hunters. Boars were dangerous animals with razor-sharp teeth (you really did not want to meet one-to-one, esp. with no weapon). So the unarmed workers workers avoided the dense undergrowth where the boar might be and beat around it, rather than going into it. Thus, this evasive technique was termed “beating around the bush” and today represents anyone who avoids approaching anything directly
Old Stomping Ground
The prairie chicken was often observed by early settlers dancing around at dawn with their fancy mating steps, making noises and strutting as part of their courtship with the females. They were so intense on this, they actually wore some areas of the ground bare! Soon, settlers could just tell by looking at some bare land that it was the mating spots for those frisky prairie chickens, and soon got called their “old stomping grounds.” Today the term is used both for areas when males and females gather to meet each other, or for any place in which a group of people just go to have fun and kick up their heels etc.
Biologist W.C. Allee gained fame when he discovered the pecking order of hens, and the female’s habit of using her beak as a weapon among other females. The hens never peck the male roosters. And yet the term today is often referred to represent the verbal attacks females put upon males. Go figure!
As far as farming goes, chicken feed is the poor quality wheat or corn given to chickens. Soon, city folks used the phrase in regards to our lower denominations of coins. And, the phrase soon became really popular among riverboat gamblers to mean a small amount of money, and it stuck.
It’s a phrase used to describe visible small bumps on our skin because of fear, shivering, etc. The phrase is based on the fact that geese were plucked of their feathers every couple of months, leaving the birds pretty bare. So, when they’d get a chill from the cold air, their skin would shrink and create these large pimples.
A Gift Horse in the Mouth or Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
When you get information straight from the horse’s mouth, it means you are suppose to be getting honest, correct information. The phrase comes from the old days when determining how old a horse was was done by looking at his teeth. So, before betting on a horse, people wanting to check its teeth to see how old this horse was. Therefore, anyone who worked around the horse (stable hand?) knew how old the horse was and could let the others know. Therefore, the information was acquired, ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ and not the owner of the horse.
On the other hand, if someone gave you a horse for free, it was considered rude to look in its mouth and check to see how old it was. Therefore, you were not to “look a gift horse in the mouth.” Today, this means not to question the quality or motive a gift you get from someone.
Web Behind the Ears
This refers to someone who has absolutely no knowledge or skill in some craft or job assignment. It goes beyond being a beginner. It means to know zip, nada, nothing! The origin is simple. It refers to newborn animals, who are wet from the womb when born. They dry slowly and often behind their ears stays wet the longest. Newborns are pretty helpless and know nothing, just like someone who has to do something that they don’t know how to do.
The phrase today means simply to be caught doing something wrong, usually while you are doing it so there’s no doubt you are doing something wrong. In the old days, it simply meant to be caught with the red blood of an animal on your hands as a result of butchering an animal that didn’t belong to you. According to the laws back then, just having freshly cut meat didn’t make you guilty. You had to be caught with the fresh blood of the animal to be convicted.
To Be At the End of Your Rope
Today it means that you have used up all possible resources, solutions, ideas, etc. in order to surmount a problem you have. It originated from the tethering of horses to eat (but not allowing them to run free). So, horse would eat in the area his rope allowed. When the horse ate all the grass that was easy, he then was stretching and eating in the area that was “at the end of his rope.”
To Gum-Up the Works
Someone (or something) that suddenly stops a project from running smoothly is “gumming up the works.” The phrase originates in old lumbering days when the men had to deal with the Sweet Gum tree. It’s sap gummed up their saws. They hated that. But, they discovered that the gum was fun to chew. So, they’d go collecting it and as a result, oftentimes returned all sticky from head to foot. And, it was hard to wash off! So, a person was all gummed up and stuck (lacking freedom of movement).
On the Day of Atonement (Hebrews) the priests would take a black goat as the representative of all the sins of the people. During this ceremony he would lay the sins of the people on the goat’s head. Afterwards, the goat was let go (escape). Later on, anyone who was made to take the blame for the actions of someone else was called a “scapegoat” just like the ceremonial goat did for the sins of the people.
To Go Haywire
Logically, this phrase has to do with bailing hay. Back in 1828, Moses P. Bliss patented a machine that bailed hay. It worked pretty good, but there were times when the wire used on the machine would get stuck in the machine, wrap around the horse’s legs, etc. When the men cut it to untangle the mess, it often snapped, causing injuries. The situation soon slipped into social talk to represent anytime anything gets all messed up and can’t work properly (machines, projects, ideas etc.).
Kick the Bucket
It’s an expression meaning death. The phase originates from slaughter houses. When a cow was to be killed, a bucket was placed under him, while he was being positioned on a hoist. Sometimes, while adjusting the hoist, it made the animals legs jerk and he’d kick the bucket before he was killed.
Barking Up the Wrong Tree
Settlers hunted raccoons, possums and squirrels. Most hunting dogs would chase them up a tree and then bark until their masters came and shot the animals. Sometimes, the animal managed to sneak across to another tree w/o the dog seeing. So, the dog would continue to bark up a tree that didn’t have any prey. Soon, the phrase became known in social circles to mean anyone who is wrong about something and/or is being mislead.
To Build a Fire Under Someone
We all know that mules are pretty stubborn. Sometimes they just firmly set their legs and well… So, farmers decided that building a small fire under the mule’s belly would get him moving. There’s no proof this was really done a lot by muleskinners. But, the idea and imagery was such that people started using the phrase to mean “trying to get someone to move or take some action.”
It’s just a name for barnyard excrements from chickens. The phrase first appeared in stories written by Charles F. Brown (aka Artemis Ward) in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1858. He used the phrase to described the political talk he was hearing from candidates. It seemed to then catch on as a way of expressing any talk that was worthless and stupid, whether political or not.
A Stuffed Shirt
Anyone who is rather immobile (rather in actions or in ideas) is said to be a stuffed shirt. The phrase comes from scarecrows in which shirts and pants were stuffed with hay, supported by a stiff pole to create a figure to scare away pesky crows. It didn’t really move, it just stood there.
To Live High on The Hog or To Eat High on The Hog
The origin is pretty simple. It comes from the fact that the best part of meat on a hog is cut high on the thigh. The lesser quality meat comes from the lower thigh (has lots of fat). So, the meaning of the phrase is basically when you are eating (or living) the very best that is available to you; and, are not having second best or lower quality.
Fork Over of Fork It Over
“Fork over the dough!” is often heard on old 1940’s gangster movies. The term originates from England where peasants had to pay their landlords (Noblemen) rent in silver. When they didn’t have any silver, then they had to pay their rent from their crops. Shrewd rent collectors would decrease the market value of the crops to get more. In the meantime, the peasant was paying his rent via his pitchfork as he shoveled his crop into a wagon and grumbled. Rather than a pitchfork, today we just use our hands and “hand over” whatever is asked.
It’s not about pigeons in the park sitting on stools. The origin goes back to when pigeons were eaten as a good meat source. In order to get one, many hunters took a tame pigeon, tied it to a stool in order to attract the wild pigeons to shoot at. Because the pigeon that was tied to the stool was used to trap the other birds, the name “stool pigeon” soon was used to represent anyone to tells (betrays) on his friends.
Two origins: First, male pigs are called swines. When they are castrated they are called hogs. The castration process required that the hogs be washed afterwards. The water was tossed out as worthless.
Or….it’s just the name of the swill fed to swines which really has no nutritional value at all. Today, if something is said to be hogwash, it just means talk that is stupid, invalid or illogical. In other words, it has about as much value as the nutrition in hogwash.
Pull Up Stakes
When you leave a place where you’ve been and go to a new spot, you are said to “pull up stakes.” The origin goes back to homesteaders, were stakes were put in the ground to mark survey lines. But, sneaky settlers would go out at night and move the stakes of other people to their benefit.
Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of England wrote in his novel, Coningsby in which he has the phrase “the most fishy thing I ever saw.” to describe a suspicious political deal. He observed that both fish and politicians could be slippery. Today, if something is said to be fishy, it means there is something suspicious about it.
Nip It in the Bud
Horticulturist learned years ago that in order to produce good fruit, a plant had to have a lot of buds snipped off. This improved garden produce, but was disastrous to individual buds. It became proverbial that when a bud was nipped off, it would definitely no longer produce any fruit. Today the word is used to refer to a sudden halt in any plans or project in which no further progress will result.
And finally, here’s everyone’s favorite deputy sheriff demonstrating the usage of this last one…well, sort of…
To me, word and phrase origins can be quite interesting. The site noted at the top of this post has many other English language words and phrases and their origins, in case you’re inclined to read about some more of them.