Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

Getting Down to the Nitty GRITty of Farm Terms

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: language, farm, barn, rural living,

A view of Cindy's farm

I am fascinated by folklore. There’s European folklore, Medieval folklore, American folklore, Native American folklore … the list goes on and on, and I find it all very interesting. Plant lore is a personal favorite of mine. And then there’s word-lore.

Origins of words and phrases intrigue me. Have you ever wondered where some of the things we say almost on a daily basis came from? I thought it’d be kind of neat to get to the bottom of some the words, phrases, and colloquialisms that have a GRITty spirit to them.  

Take the word “farm,” for example. Do you know that it was the “farmer” who once did the tax collecting instead of government collecting taxes from the farmer? How’s that for role-reversal? Doesn’t it make you sometimes wish for the days of old? It’s not as good as it sounds, though. “Farm” comes to us through the French word ferme, which is derived from the Latin firmus, meaning fixed or settled. When the term was first used in France and England it referred to the fixed annual rent, tax or revenue payable by people, towns or counties to an overlord. The “farmer” was the person who collected those payments.  

Until Revolutionary times, the French general farmers, or the fermes generale, collected annual taxes (called farms), paid by individuals and towns to the royal treasury. Farmers, always an ingenious breed, kept a little aside for themselves to save for a rainy day. Rain must have been predicted often in France back in those days, because the farmers became excessively wealthy pocketing the difference between the amounts collected and the amount that was actually due.  

In England, land used for agricultural purposes was most often leased by a tenant who worked the land. A “farm” was the fixed annual rent paid by the tenant on that leased land. It was not until the 16th century that the word “farm” referred to the land itself, and not the taxes paid upon it.

Whether you were a land tenant in England back then, or a farmer in the sense of the word as we use it today, you’d want to avoid buying the farm. “To buy the farm,” nearly everyone knows, means to die. But when and why did we start associating purchasing a farm with death?

The phrase started appearing in print during the 1950s. The origin of the euphemism has three possibilities, all pertaining to the U.S. military. An edition of American Speech from 1955 suggests that a farmer may sue the government for compensation if a jet were to crash on his property. If the amount of that compensation was enough to pay off the farm’s mortgage, in essence, the pilot “bought the farm.”

While off at war, it was the dream of many U.S. servicemen to return home, start a family and settle to a peaceful life on the farm. The second theory took this dream into account when in the unfortunate event that the serviceman was killed overseas. It was said “he bought the farm early.”

The third way a serviceman might have bought the farm is by his family using the military service personnel insurance to pay off the mortgage, if the soldier was killed in action.

Ok, so you’ve bought the farm – literally, and not figuratively speaking. Chances are, on that farm, you’ll find a barn. E-i-e-i-o. “Barns” originally referred to buildings used for storing barley. The word is derived from combining two words in Old English: bere, meaning barley, and ern, meaning house.

Barn and farm, where did these words come from?

My mother, probably out of her mind from the pain of childbirth and obviously using a self-preservation form of selective memory, must have forgotten where her children were born. She constantly needed reminding. “Were you born in a barn?” Typically following her question as to our place of birth, she needed another reminder as to who was paying the utility bills. “Do you think I’m heating the outside?”

Though it is often used interchangeably with “were you raised in a pig-sty” (there were times Mom apparently forgot where we were brought up too). The rhetorical question, “Were you born in a barn?” means the door to the outside has been left open.

Were you born in a barn?

A realistic assumption would be the phrase originated from the practice that the barn door was left open when the cows were let out to pasture, and closed when they returned in the evenings.

But there is a theory that the phrase originally was “Were you born in Bardney?” The Tupholme Abbey is a monastery built in Bardney in Lincolnshire, England. Legend says that when Saint Oswald was killed, his bones were delivered to the abbey, but the gates were kept closed, barring entrance. A light shining down from above during the night fell on the bones, illuminating them outside the locked gates – it was a sign to the monks inside the gated abbey that indeed, this truly was a saint. The gates were quickly opened to allow Saint Oswald’s remains to enter. From that point on, the gates of Tupholme Abbey stayed open. This gave rise to the phrase, “Do you come from Bardney,” which meant that a door was left open. Later, Bardney was shortened to “barn.”  

It doesn’t matter if you’re a monk in an abbey, or heating the outside for the general purpose of annoying your mother, you most definitely do not want to be caught with your barn door open. Do monks have zippers? This polite euphemism is used commonly in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom for pointing out that one’s zipper on the front of the pants is undone.  Its origins are best left to the imagination.

And there you have it – the nitty-gritty of farm life, death, high utility bills, and fashion faux pas, all in a nut shell. In a nut shell? I wonder where that phrase came from? I may have to do another “Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty” installment here in the future. If you have a word or phrase you’d like to know the meaning of, leave me a suggestion, and I’ll see what I can dig up.  

Oh … the barn pictures I took with my cheap little point-n-click camera. To see some absolutely gorgeous barn photos, check out The Spirit of The American Barn by Bill Thomas in the current issue of GRIT.  Simply beautiful!

Sources: Dictionary of Word Origins, 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions, and The Phrases Finder (www.phrases.org.uk ).