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 ( ).

cindy murphy
9/24/2009 6:51:59 AM

Hello, Clive. So many times the facts that are the basis of legends get blurred over time. Thanks for taking the time to stop in and set me straight regarding the legend of St. Oswald and the Bardney Abbey.

clive daubney
9/24/2009 2:11:16 AM

You have certainly written a pretty good article but factually incorrect when itr comes to Tupholme Abbey. The Abbey was built at Tupholme, NOT Bardney. There was a separate Abbey at Bardney and a further Abbey at Kirkstead. All three Abbeys were destroyed during mthe reformation. Certain legends abound including the one that all three Abbeys were connected by tunnels. It is the Abbey at Bardney that is linked with the story of leaving the door open and is centered around King Oswald, later Saint Oswald.

michelle house
2/27/2009 6:13:57 PM

Very nice, I like folklore as well. The pictures were beautiful as well. Iggy :)

cindy murphy
2/12/2009 5:48:40 AM

I completely understand getting "tonguegulled" in front of a crowd, (Ha! I like that word - I'll have to remember it for future use). I mentioned in a previous conversation, I have a fear of heights. While that hit me out of the blue as an adult, I've always had a fear of speaking in front of a crowd. Jerry Seinfield once said something to the effect that most people would choose death over public speaking, and indeed, public speaking tops death on the list of most common phobias. Interesting form of communication you and your wife used. My husband and I had a little bit of a communication problem when we first met. I'm from the North; he grew up in the South. Some of the colorful Southern expressions he used led to confusion on my part. "You ain't justa woofin' Daddy Rabbit"....huh? There were words too that had different meanings for the both of us. Soda-pop for me was just "pop"; where he grew up, it was Coke - no matter the flavor. As kids in winter, my brothers and I went sledding on toboggans; he wore a tobaggan to go sledding - it's a hat. I can only imagine the look on my face the first time he told me he was wearing a toboggan outside.

nebraska dave
2/11/2009 6:49:02 PM

Ha, you made me laugh out loud or as the texters say LOL. Even though I love writing and words I am more of a logoplegia and required conciderable logotherapy. Seriously, when I had to stand in front people and speak, it was an aweful sight. My tang would get all tonguegulled up and listeners would need a cracker jack code ring to cifer the jibberish I spoke. Then large muscle masses would begin to twitch. Ah, and then it would go down hill from there. Now my wife was another story. She was head of the debate team that rarely lost in high school. I learned quickly not get into a debate with her as I would literally be squashed unmercifully. Our means of communication was a little peculiar. Her strength being talking, she would talk on important issues or disagreements. Knowing that my strength lay in writing, she would finish saying her piece and not expect a response. I would think on what she had said and respond with a written letter. It's really hard to deny what you have said when it's in writing. However, when she finished reading the letter we would come together and discuss the issue. It worked pretty well most of the time expect when she'd pull out that letter to prove I had said something. Oh, well, I ate a lot of crow and choked on a lot feathers over the years, which kept me eating humble pie. I love a good sci-fi movie so the Star Trek tractor beam fits right in with the definition of tractor meaning pull as that’s exactly what a tractor beam does. It reaches out and pulls an object into the cargo bay. Then, of course, there’s the retractor tool that surgeons use to hold things open while they operate. So if you don’t hear from me for awhile, you will know I got lost in word detective so please send out the cyber hounds to find me. (grin)

cindy murphy
2/11/2009 3:44:40 PM

HA! There are words for people like us, Dave. Someone who loves words could be described as a linguaphile, a logologist, or a logophile...which in my case leads to frequent bouts of that dreaded disease, logorrhea: incessant or compulsive talkativeness. Word and language are fascinating - not just as a tool to communicate, but their evolution as well. Take "Tractor" for instance, (just because I read Hank's tractor show blogs, so it's currently on my mind). It's derived from a Latin word that means "to pull", but the word started off far removed from fields and tractor shows. It was originally a device invented by an 18th century American doctor, for "pulling" across the surface of the skin to relieve arthritis pain. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century, that "tractor" was applied to farm machinery. Weird and funky stuff. I found the Phrase Finder website by chance when I was trying to find the origin of "were you born in a barn?" It's a pretty cool site, but my all time favorite website for wordly information is "The Word Dectective". Check it out if you have a chance.....but make sure you've got some time to spare. You could get lost in there for days.

nebraska dave
2/11/2009 9:36:25 AM

Cindy, very cool article on word meanings. The meaning of farmer and barn are totally not what they started out to be. Language has an ever changing life with history that can be quite fascinating. Many times I will entertain myself with word play. Double meanings, morphing words together, making up words or phrases to fit different situations are just a few things. The website of phrase meanings and history is incredible. I was actually amazed at how many phrases I knew what the meaning was. I totally lost track of time on that site and when I finally came back to reality a couple hours had pasted. I bookmarked that site for sure.