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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Many words and phrases we use today had their origins in the early activities of farming and ranching. Here we examine a few of the terms that our rancher and farmer ancestors used and how they have evolved.


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For many of our ancestors, using terminology that originated with ranching and farming was, well, normal. But many would be surprised to find out that quite a few terms we use in the city came from the farm and ranch. Here we will examine some of those words and phrases that have become commonplace for many who have never set foot on a farm or ranch.

"My computer has gone haywire," is a phrase that I frequently mutter when, once again, the machine seems to be doing things of its own accord. When someone or something is acting erratically, we often use the term "haywire" to describe the unexpected behavior, a term with an origin far from my little home office: the ranch. Farmers and ranchers use a particular type of wire for tying hay into bales and if the wire is not tied properly or if it comes loose, the wire is very difficult to control and often gets tangled in itself. While annoying if the rancher gets caught in the haywire, this experience can be deadly if a cow or horse gets entangled in the mess: in its effort to escape, it would be easy for the creature to break a leg. One who has gone haywire, then, is one whose behavior appears to be going every which way, just like that wire does (Mordock & Korach, p. 144).

Let's continue to examine how some of our phrases originated with those animals that frequently wandered around the yards of our forebears. Horses have given us a number of unique phrases that might never have come into existence without that beast of burden (e.g., "dark horse candidate," "horse play," etc.). We might say that a person is "all balled up," meaning he/she is confused or embarrassed or otherwise unable to function effectively (perhaps in the pre-haywire state of mind). While this meaning for the phrase is no older than about 1880, the phenomenon of being "all balled up" goes back much further. When the winter snows begin to melt, young men's minds might be affected by "Spring fever," but their horses may suffer from a more serious malady; bits of snow, partly melted and then refrozen into little icy balls, get stuck in the animals' hooves, causing them both discomfort and often an inability to gain a sure footing on the ground. As a result, they might fall and get entangled with another horse in the team - "all balled up" (Funk, p. 117).

While many ranchers in the 19th Century let their cattle free-range, eating the grasses that grow in the fields, their Medieval counterparts kept a closer watch on the herds and kept them more confined, feeding out of a device called a creeche. Over years, this term was changed to cratch. Children created a string game in which the string "figure" had the appearance of a cradle but was reminiscent of the cattle's feed trough, so the string figure was dubbed a "cratch-cradle." Over the years, the farmers abandoned the old cratch and replaced it with a more efficient hayrack; the term "cratch" soon became archaic and even meaningless as people forgot what it had once been. The string figure, however, had a longer life and its name, then seeming to be meaningless, was changed to "cat's cradle" (Garrison, p. 270).

Did your ancestors have "nest eggs"? When we consider how much money was needed to survive from day-to-day, it is something to wonder about. If you were to ask a farmer about a "nest egg," he would say it is actually a fake egg that is kept in a hen's nest. This "egg" coaxes the biddy to lay more eggs than she might otherwise produce, resulting in the farmer's ability to take more eggs to sell, thus improving his financial situation. If you have farmers in your family tree, they may well have engaged in this activity and therefore had a little extra money to put away for whatever emergency might arise - a little "nest egg" (Mordock & Korach, p. 107). These vital residents - the chickens that lived in the towns as well as on the farms - also gave us another term: "brood," originating from the Anglo-Saxon word brod, meaning "heat," a necessary element for eggs to hatch. A hen that is "brooding" is providing her unhatched chicks the warmth needed to break free from their shells. Similarly, a person who is "brooding" is thinking, possibly "hatching" some sort of plot. The prolonged "warming" of a scheme, perhaps a method by which one can finally locate that elusive ancestor, is just normal procedure for the hens (Garrison, p. 273).

Now, a seemingly natural enemy to the cattlemen were sheepmen, or those who raised sheep; the sheep ranchers had different husbandry issues from those of the cattlemen. Sheep, of course, possess woolly coats that are sheared every spring. Prior to shearing, the sheep, wandering around the grazing areas, rub against trees and brush, leaving bits of their wool behind on the foliage. So as not to lose any potential income, the sheep rancher calls on his children to go around and pull, or gather, these bits of wool from the bushes and trees. Besides being a rather mindless task, it is not one that would provide anyone with much of an income (probably why it was considered a child's task as opposed to being delegated to a more highly paid employee). From this we get the term "wool-gathering," meaning mindless "meditation," something some of probably engage in when we have been scrolling through microfilms for hours on end (Holt, pp. 249-250).

Also borrowed from the sheep ranchers is the term "black sheep." Some have given that label to the relatives whose activities were less than stellar (the horse thieves and bank robbers). Let us see where the term really originates. Dying fabric was not the most lucrative of activities: dyes were costly, so most folks wore the fabrics from natural fibers. A sheep with black wool (very rare, by the way) was a liability: its wool could not be combined with that from the other sheep and, unless the rancher happened to have a huge quantity of sheep - enough to have a multitude of black sheep - the wool was useless. So, then, is the "black sheep" in the family (Garrison, pp. 271-272). On that same topic, the weavers who created cloth of that wool discovered that the fabric, when dyed, did not hold its color as well as the wool that was dyed prior to weaving. When it is "dyed in the wool," the fabric tends to fade less; thus, when a person's habits seem to be strongly fixed in his behavior - such as those of us who cannot pass a cemetery without stopping "just to check" - that activity is called "dyed in the wool" (Funk, pp. 26-27).

When searching for books that just might have your ancestor listed, have you ever bought a "pig in a poke"? Farmers, who take their pigs to market, were sometimes known to try to "pull the wool over someone's eyes" by selling the unsuspecting customer such an item. A poke, of course, is a bag, presumably an easy container in which to transport the little porker. Since pigs are prone to running, given the chance, the customer just might purchase his bacon on the hoof without actually looking inside the bag, arriving home to find a common house cat in the sack! Of course, the pig farmer, having sold his wares to the unsuspecting person, is long gone (Funk, pp. 105-106). We try to avoid buying pigs in pokes when we purchase genealogy text or software. But sometimes we hit pay dirt and when we get the long-awaited item it not only includes information about our ancestor, but it provides some other data as well - things that we had not previously been aware of (maybe things that some of our relatives have attempted to keep secret, such as a previous marriage, an illegitimate child, an illegal activity, etc.). That book has just "let the cat out of the bag" and now we have a little more information and know our ancestor a little better by discovering the material that had been meant to be kept private (Garrison, p. 241).

When it comes to human nature, we certainly take a number of phrases from the animal kingdom. When we spend some of our nest egg on genealogical material, we continue to make efforts not to have our genealogy purchases be akin to pigs in pokes. While we wonder what life was like for our ancestors, we sometimes engage in wool-gathering and brooding over a complex issue regarding our genealogy. We hope that the latest finding will not cause our research to go haywire and get all balled up, and we hope that any cats that are let out of bags provide us with proof that our ancestors' convictions were dyed in the wool, not that they were the family's black sheep!


Garrison, Webb B. Why you say it: The Fascinating Stories Behind Over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Funk, Charles Earle. Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1948.

Holt, Alfred. Phrases and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1961.

Mordock, John, & Korach, Myron. Common Phrases and Where They Came From. Guilford, CT:The Lyons Press, 2001.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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