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.
Hit the hay
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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