On and off the farm: some phrases straight out of the barnyard

A small grain elevator on a farm near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada; Saffron Blaze

Glosso’s earlier post Outside baseball: 20 words & expressions that came right off the batting field is a Glosso-follower favorite, so we decided to harvest, metaphorically, another type of field: this time the green, farmyard kind. We’ve dug up a selection of 38 expressions whose seeds were sown in farming and agricultural lingo. And we’ve dug up their origins and early citations when we’ve managed to unearth them.

Make hay while the sun shines: Make the most of a favorable situation while it lasts. This proverb is first recorded in John Heywood’s A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, 1546: “Whan the sunne shinth make hay. Whiche is to say. / Take time whan time cometh, lest time steale away.” (Phrase Finder)

Bet the farm (on something): (informal N. American) Risk everything that one owns on a bet, investment, or enterprise.

Buy the farm: (informal N. American) Die. The expression comes from a 1950s-era Air Force term meaning “to crash” or “to be killed in action,” and refers to the desire of many wartime pilots to stop flying, return home, buy a farm, and live peaceably ever after. (The Old Farmers’ Almanac)

Farm out: The phrase harkens back to the earlier legal meaning of a farm as a rental arrangement whereby a tenant occupied and cultivated land in return for some regular payment of rents. Today, the primary sense of the phrase is to send work out-of-house to an independent contractor or subcontractor. (StackExchange)

Funny farm: (derogatory, informal) “A psychiatric hospital.” From the slang use of the word funny to mean weird, unusual and the description of mad people as ‘funny in the head’. An early citation of ‘funny farm’ is in John Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace (1959), set in New Hampshire, US: “You might start to believe it, then I’d have to make a reservation for you at the Funny Farm.” (Phrase Finder)

A hard row to hoe: This phrase was used in the American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany Row in 1818, so it’s at least that old. Row and hoe are sometimes mistakenly replaced with road and hold as eggcorns (Glosso’s earlier post Are You Talking Eggcorns? explains what they’re all about), but the original farming metaphor, according to StackExchange, seems to be chiefly American in usage.

Put out to pasture: To retire (a person), to make (a person) redundant; to cease using (a thing). Out to pasture: retired; redundant; superseded.1868: Harper’s Mag. “These five infants, on whom I had expended so much surplus energy, were turned out to pasture without any compunctions of conscience.” (OED)

Sort/separate the wheat from the chaff: “Distinguish valuable people or things from worthless ones.” The thought appears metaphorically in the Bible, where John the Baptist, speaking of the one ‘that cometh after me,’ continues (Matthew 3:12) ‘Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’.” From The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985). (Phrase Finder)

Look for a needle in a haystack: Something that would be immensely difficult to find. Usually taken as an example of something it is foolish to attempt to find. OED gives the earliest citation as c1530: T. More Let. Impugnynge J. Fryth in Wks. “To seke out one lyne in all hys bookes wer to go looke a nedle in a medow.”

Hit the hay: Retire to bed. In 1902, mattresses were often sacks stuffed with straw or hay (hence the similar phrase ‘hit the sack’). The phrase ‘hit the hay’ seems to have originated in the US sports scene. The Oakland Tribune in July 1903 reported that “‘SamBerger, the Olympic heavyweight … was sleepy and he announced that ‘he was going to hit the hay.'” (Phrase Finder)

Roll in the hay: Make love. 1949: M. Miller Sure Thing “I thought here’s a kind of pretty girl… and I bet she’d be a good roll in the hay.” (OED)

Sow your wild oats: OED explains: “[in reference to the folly and mischief of sowing wild oats instead of good grain]: to commit youthful excesses or follies; to spend early life in dissipation or dissolute courses (usually implying subsequent reform).” OED‘s earliest citation is from 1576: T. Newton tr. L. Lemnie Touchstone of Complexions “That wilfull and vnruly age, which lacketh rypenes and discretion, and (as wee saye) hath not sowed all theyr wyeld Oates.”

Reap what you sow: To face the (usually negative) consequences of one’s actions. Another version of the proverb is as you sow, so shall you reap. The sentiment comes from the New Testament of the Bible, Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” OED offers this citation from the Wycliffe’s Bible c.1384: “Forsothe what thingis a man schal sowe, and thes thing[es] he schal repe.” (OED)

Get all your ducks in a row: Make all the preparations needed to do something; get everything organized. The earliest known written citation is in The Plaindealer in 1889: “In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong.” However, its etymology is muddy, and different theories have it coming from the game of pool (in which a ball in front of a pocket, an easy shot, is sometimes called a duck) to the fairground amusement of shooting at a row of mechanical ducks; from wild fowling, in which to get ducks in a row meant one shot could pot a number of birds at once, to bowling (early bowling pins were often shorter and thicker than modern pins, which led to the nickname ducks).

Play ducks and drakes with: Trifle with; treat frivolously. Also to behave recklessly; to idly squander one’s wealth. Ducks and drakes is the old English name for the pastime of skimming flat stones on the surface of water to make them bounce as many times as possible. The sense of refer idly throwing something away or squandering resources came into use in the 17th century. See this example in James Cooke’s Tu Quoque, 1614: “This royal Caesar doth regard no cash; Has thrown away as much in ducks and drakes As would have bought some 50,000 capons.” (Phrase Finder)

Like water off (or from) a duck’s back: Easily, readily. OED offers a citation from 1824: Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. “The thing passed off like water from a duck’s back.”

Run around like a headless chicken: In phrases denoting frantic, unthinking, and often futile activity. It dates back to the late 19th century; its earliest use is found in the Christian Union. It alludes to the phenomenon whereby a chicken can move about for a short time after decapitation, due to reflex activity of the nervous system. (Lexico)

(Don’t) count your chickens before they hatch: Don’t be hasty in evaluating one’s assets. The thought was recorded in print by Thomas Howell in New Sonnets and pretty Pamphlets, 1570: “Counte not thy Chickens that vnhatched be, /
Waye wordes as winde, till thou finde certaintee.” (Phrase Finder)

(Don’t) put all your eggs in one basket: Don’t risk all your property on a single venture. It’s a 16th-century British proverb, and OED offers this citation from 1662: G. Torriano 2nd Alphabet Proverbial Phrases “To put all ones Eggs in a Paniard, viz. to hazard all in one bottom.”

Couldn’t organise a chook raffle at a poultry farm: (primarily Australian) (Someone) is utterly incompetent or unable to arrange things successfully; (someone) can’t even manage or carry out the simplest of tasks. (Chook is an informal term for a hen or chicken.)

Pigs might fly: an ironic phrase indicating the unlikeliness of something actually happening. It’s a form of adynaton: a figure of speech by which an impossible (or highly unlikely) situation is used for emphasis. The original version of ‘pigs might fly’ was ‘pigs fly with their tails forward’, which is first found in a list of proverbs in the 1616 edition of John Withals’s English-Latin dictionary A Shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Begynners: “Pigs fly in the ayre with their tayles forward.” This form of the expression was in use for two hundred years as a sarcastic rejoinder to any overly optimistic prediction made by the gullible. Thomas Fuller, in Gnomologia (1732), was the first to explicitly single out the pig as a ham-fisted aeronaut: “That is as likely as to see an Hog fly.” (Phrase Finder)

Pig’s ear: 1) Rhyming slang for beer; it’s one of the earliest examples of rhyming slang and appears in D. W. Barrett’s Life & Work among Navvies, 1880: “Now, Jack, I’m goin’ to get a tiddley wink of pig’s ear.” 2) As in “in a pig’s ear”: originated in the US in the 1850s as a variant of “in a pig’s eye.” Both phrases were used as expressions of incredulous disbelief. They might be related to “pigs might fly” (see above). 3) As in “Make a pig’s ear”: a mid-20th-century phrase meaning ‘completely botch something up; make a complete mess of it’. It was first seen in print in Reader’s Digest in 1950: “If you make a pig’s ear of the first one, you can try the other one.”

A pig in a poke: Something bought or accepted without prior inspection. A poke is a sack or bag. In 1858 Fraser’s Magazine reprinted a piece from Richard Hill’s Common-place Book, 1530, which gave this advice to market traders: “When ye proffer the pigge open the poke.” (Phrase Finder)

Happy as a pig in mud: Very happy, extremely content. (Originally English regional, northern.) Sometimes the pig is happy in mud, and sometimes it is muck that brings joy to the porcine heart. In the 1860s it was common to see happy as a pig in clover, or happy as a pig in a puddle. “We are disposed to imagine ourself the luckiest editor extant, and ought to be as happy as a pig in a puddle.” (The Ledger and Texan, San Antonio, TX,1860). (Merriam-Webster)

A pigsty: A very dirty or untidy room or building. OED gives this citation from 1798: M. Weld No Union “Whose lofty castle is that, which yonder contemptuously frowns on the wretched hovel (or more appropriately, as Twiss called it, ‘a Pig-stye’).”

Hog-wild: (US) Completely wild or unrestrained; crazy. 1893: Galveston (Texas) Daily News “The state of Kansas has gone ‘hog wild’.” (OED)

High on the hog: Affluent and luxurious. Why, when people had eaten pork for millennia, did the phrase not originate before the 20th century, is a difficult question to answer. Nevertheless, ‘high on the hog’ appears to have been derived, in the USA, as a reference to the cuts of meat on pigs. (Phrase Finder)

Have a cow: (North American slang) To lose one’s self-control in a fit of anger. Probably with reference to the upsetting and painful notion of giving birth to a cow; compare earlier to “have kittens.” Mid-20th century origin. 1959: Denton (Texas) Record-Chron. “He won’t let me watch rock ‘n roll shows… He’d have a cow if he knew I watched 77 Sunset Strip.” (OED)

Till the cows come home: For a long but indefinite time. The earliest example in print is from the late 16th century. John Eliot used it in Ortho-epia Gallica (a French teaching textbook) in 1593: “I am tied by the foote till the Cow come home.” Groucho Marx played with the phrase in his 1933 film Duck Soup: “I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows and you come home.” (Phrase Finder)

A bull in a china shop: The symbol of one who produces reckless destruction. 1834: F. Marryat Jacob Faithful: “I’m like a bull in a china-shop.” (OED)

Take the bull by the horns: To meet a difficulty with courage. 1711: J. Swift Conduct of Allies “To engage with France, was to take a Bull by the Horns.” (OED)

Talk the hind leg off a donkey, horse etc.: (Applied to one who) talks with unflagging and wearying persistence, or:  (b)  is said to have the power to persuade another by eloquent or charming speech. 1808: Cobbett’s Weekly Polit. Reg. “The old vulgar hyperbole of ‘talking a horse’s hind leg off’… will find its verification in the American Congress.” (OED)

As stubborn as a mule: Very stubborn. 1751: Mem. Lady of Quality in T. Smollett Peregrine Pickle “Some people…have actually believed him a good-natured easy creature…; but, upon further acquaintance, they have always found him obstinate as a mule, and capricious as a monkey.” (OED)

Like a lamb to the slaughter: In an unconcerned manner – unaware of the impending catastrophe. From 1611, the King James Bible, Psalms xliv. 22: “Wee are counted as sheepe for the slaughter.” In addition to lambs, other verses in the Bible have other animals going ‘to the slaughter,’ including oxen, bullocks and sheep. There was an allusion to the especial helplessness of lambs in the 1991 film The Silence of The Lambs. Geoffery Chaucer laid the groundwork for the phrase in the Man of Law’s Tale, 1386: “For as a lamb is brought to slaughter, so / She stands, this innocent, before the king.” (Phrase Finder)

It gets my goat, or gets my goat up: (Originally US) To anger, annoy, or irritate; to make (a person) lose his or her temper. In the US book Life in Sing Sing, 1904, goat is given as a slang term for anger. The phrase originated in the US and the first entry in print that I can find comes from a fanciful story about a burst water pipe that was printed in the US newspaper The Stevens Point Daily Journal in May 1909: “Wouldn’t that get your goat? We’d been transferring the same water all night from the tub to the bowl and back again.” (Phrase Finder)

From the horse’s mouth: From the person directly concerned or another authoritative source. In horse racing circles, tips on which horse is a likely winner circulate amongst punters. The most trusted authorities are those in closest touch with the recent form of the horse – that is, stable lads, trainers etc. The notional ‘from the horse’s mouth’ is supposed to indicate one step better than even that inner circle, i.e. the horse itself. The phrase originated around the turn of the 20th century. An early citation in the London Reynolds Newspaper, 1896, reads: “As the great British nation takes far more interest in horse racing than in politics, the exchange of rulers would be delightful, because, look you, we’d get all our tips straight from the horse’s mouths, instead of being deluded and swindled every day by their lordly owners.” (Phrase Finder)

Beat (or flog) a dead horse: Waste energy on a lost cause or a situation that cannot be changed. “Though he supported the measure, British politician and orator John Bright thought the Reform Bill of 1867, which called for more democratic representation, would never be passed by Parliament. Trying to rouse Parliament from its apathy on the issue, he said in a speech, would be like trying to ‘flog a dead horse’ to make it pull a load. This is the first recorded use of the expression.” From the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Fact on File, New York, 1997)

Look a gift horse in the mouth: To criticize and find fault with a gift. As with most proverbs the origin is ancient and unknown. We have some clues with this one however. The phrase appears in print in English in 1546, as “don’t look a given horse in the mouth”, in John Heywood’s A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, where he gives it as: “No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.” (Phrase Finder)

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