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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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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