Country Turns of Phrase

Reader Contribution by Sarah Joplin
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Given that I’ve long been a writer and interested in language, it’s little wonder that when we moved to the country I was struck by how many turns of phrase originate from rural living and in turn intrigued or amused at the context of their origins. According to, the expression “turn of phrase” itself was first used in 1779 by Benjamin Franklin referencing how words could be “turned”, like wood on a lathe, in order to craft their unique meaning.  Following are some of the phrases that have struck me along with an abbreviated Merriam Webster (or comparable) reference and their corresponding country context. As for me, I’ll take the country any day but keep my mind open to many perspectives as I listen and learn.


Merriam Webster states “a period of prosperity or vigor” while those of us in the country know that it is more of a season than a day. We struggle to find the right stretch of dry weather long enough to cut, wind-row, bale and haul in the season’s yield. Often, unexpected rainfall (a shower or a deluge) will foil one or more of these steps and lessen the quality of the hay or ruin it entirely. Of course, you also have to account for some of your machinery breaking down in the process. It’s tricky business and an art more than a science; some might say it’s mostly luck. We all agree, though, when the hay is baled and put up for the season, it’s time to celebrate!

Tough Row to Hoe indicates this to mean a “large, challenging task” while for those gardeners among us, this expression conjures rocks, roots and dirt clods situated along the line you choose for establishing a planting row. Such terrain humbles us and can be infuriating not to mention physically draining and daunting.

Going to Town

When you live deep in the country, often on gravel roads, sometimes off the grid, mostly off the land and definitely off the beaten path, days can stretch on when you don’t get in the car to go anywhere. Everything you need is right there on your property, in your pantry or root cellar, in your meat locker or library. Country living tends to be more self-sufficient than urban life so actually venturing off the homestead and into town gets to be a big deal. There’s always an important motive for your trip so you rise to the occasion and as James Rogers in his “Dictonary of Cliches” (Ballantine Books) would say, you go with gusto.

Growing Like a Weed

Merriam Webster indicates “growing very quickly” for this turn of phrase. Again, for those who garden, our experience of the growing behavior of weeds is quite a phenomenon. Weeds can double overnight and their growth is exponential the larger they get. Weeds can grow in the most prohibitive places and under the most impossible conditions. Drought? No problem. Clay? Not an issue. Drowning rain? No trouble. Weeds exhibit extraordinary tolerance, vigor and adaptability in their growth. It seems all we need do is turn our backs and weeds flourish.  We can only dream that our prize plants would grow so well.

A Breath of Fresh Air

  Part of the reason people choose to live in the country is for the air quality; most rural people spend a lot of time outside and enjoy the fresh air and quiet of the country. Fresh air is a vital component to living on the land. Urbanites, on the other hand, use this phrase to mean that something or someone is refreshing, new, different or exciting (Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, Cambridge University Press), as if it is a rarity or anomaly. Once again, the rift between urban and rural is crystal clear.

Top Notch

 My boyfriend and a neighbor were recently using a farm jack to repair a tractor fender. They wrangled the jack every which way, raised the front end loader bucket and lowered it and repositioned the jack in hopes of getting enough torque to repair the spot. Each time, they’d crank the jack all the way up and try to crank it back down, but they were at the top notch, the most leverage, the best they could do. Where the Oxford dictionary claims top notch to be the best quality, first-class or excellent, in the country, the top notch is often a physical point with implications on the working function of the apparatus which houses the notches. It’s true that you often can’t go any higher, but in the practical world, that is not always a good thing!

From the Ground Up

When people talk about their ground in the country, they are referring to their land or their soil, even the terrain of their homesteads. If you are building from the ground up in a rural setting, you may be starting with soil improvements, you may have to deal with earthmoving, in any case with very foundational components including dirt.  City dwellers have a more sanitized meaning for this turn of phrase. Their ground is often paved and infrastructure further along, so they are working with the building blocks of, say, growing a business. Frames of reference vary wildly between the more feral nature of country folk and a more domesticated urban understanding.

The next time you are listening to someone speak, stop to listen more keenly and note the underlying foundations of various turns of phrase. You’ll be surprised at the breadth of experience we draw on in our day-to-day language and how indicative it is of our roots and perspectives.


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