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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch, Part 2

Words and phrases from the fields of ranching and farming have been around since the time of our ancestors. This second of two articles on the topic examines some of these terms and their origins.


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In part one we looked at some of the livestock around the farm and ranch, identifying a number of phrases that are common in many walks of life that are far removed from that of the rancher and farmer. Many terms, however, have been gleaned from the activities common in the environments of these hard workers. Ranchers often had to be prepared to tackle whatever the job entailed, even if it was not in their area of expertise such as blacksmithing. The phrases here were probably common to ranchers who took care of all the necessary tasks.

Maintaining the livestock was of paramount importance to our ancestors. In some cases, the cattle they raised provided the ranchers with much of their income and, when it was time to get the beasts to market, if a farmer had only one or two creatures to sell, he would insert a ring in the nose of his cow or ox, enabling him to slip a rope through the ring and easily lead the animal to market. This phrase, "leading by the nose," was soon adapted to other situations, being applied especially to the man whose wife tells him what to do, seemingly to lead him by the nose (Mordock & Korach, p. 108).

Of course, many of our rancher ancestors had many more animals than could be taken to the market, or anywhere else, by the nose. The proverbial cattle drive was the method used and it was vital that, when rounding up the cattle, each rancher in the area corralled only his own animals. For this reason, the use of the branding iron was necessary. The word "brand" actually means "burn," so the cattle are "burned" with the owner's mark. From this word we also get the term "brand new," meaning "fresh from the fire." Originally, it was reserved for items made of metal and formed while hot, but has since been adapted to any item that has been recently created or acquired (Morris & Morris, pp. 85-86). That has further evolved into the term "brand," meaning "trademark" (Holt, pp. 34-35). In the case of an animal which cannot be branded in this sense, the owner resorts to notching the ear with an identifying mark - an "earmark." This term has also evolved, and we tend to use it when referring to something that has been reserved or marked for future reference (Morris & Morris, p.198).

If it were not for the blacksmiths of earlier eras, we would miss out on many colorful and useful phrases. In the 21st Century it is not uncommon to hear genealogists complain about having "too many irons in the fire," meaning that they have too many ancestral projects to attend to and do not feel in control of anything. When our ancestors had "too many irons in the fire," it was far more literal: their irons, perhaps horseshoes in the making or other pieces of iron to be formed into pump handles or other tools needed to make a ranch run smoothly, had to be heated to the right temperature and then pounded into the desired shape on the anvil. An efficient smith would have a number of irons heating so that no time is wasted, but an inefficient worker might have too many irons heating at the same time, possibly rendering some of the raw material virtually useless (Funk, Heavens to Betsy, pp. 53-54).

Another phrase borrowed from the blacksmith is "strike while the iron is hot." It would be useless to pound on a piece of cold metal in an attempt to form it into something useful. In a figurative sense, it means to act at the most opportune moment, taking best advantage of the circumstances (Funk, Heaven's to Betsy, pp. 23-24), such as when we take advantage of a free trial of a genealogy pay web site, allowing us to see whether or not the site will be helpful to us. Timing is of the essence (note: this was once a legal term - essence, referring to "essential," not an extract of some sort [pp. 50-51])!

Sometimes in our research we get the feeling that our work has "gone to pot," another term derived from the job of blacksmith. Smiths had a tendency to keep a pot on hand into which they would toss the bits and pieces of metal that had no particular value; eventually these would be melted down for later use. Any scrap iron would be thrown into this pot (Why do we Say it?, p. 106). Now, our great-great-grandmother might disagree with this origin, saying that she, too, kept a pot into which she threw pieces of leftover meat and other scraps that she then made into a savory stew or soup (Holt, pp. 202-203). Regardless, these discarded items might have no value in and of themselves, but once in the proverbial pot, they can contribute to a valuable product. Even when things seem futile in our research and it all seems to have gone to pot; if we keep adding the bits and pieces we discover, the end result might be quite palatable (we just need to be sure to verify the data and use the most credible sources).

Of course, the opposite of the seasoned rancher would be the greenhorn. This term, used to describe the inexperienced ranch hand, has its origin in the oxen that many used to plow the fields and pull the wagons west. While valuable as beasts of burden, these creatures are anything but bright: it takes an ox most of its life to finally gain an understanding of the commands "gee" and "haw" (right and left). When they needed to get a replacement ox, most pioneers would turn down a young, or "greenhorn" beast (with new, tender horns), as it was not yet trained (Garrison, pp. 273-274). When our ancestors headed west, especially if they were not versed in oxen behavior, they might have settled for greenhorn animals, adding to their challenges on the long journey. Oxen, though not particularly intelligent, were able to pull wagons over some of the roughest terrain and, while not as agile as horses, they had greater endurance (strong as an ox) and were not as likely to break a leg in the long trek. Nevertheless, they often did not take kindly to being yoked together, or being made to do any work. To keep the oxen in line, the farmer or ox driver would keep the creatures in line with a sharp instrument - a prick or goad. To show their displeasure and, hopefully, make their escape, the oxen would "kick against the pricks," meaning that they would kick back at the goads used to maintain control over them, resulting in more pain. When a person is said to "kick against the pricks" it means that he/she is fighting back against authority (Mt. Carmel), not unlike some of us when we are faced with yet another research barrier (such as a rise in costs of pension records or a closed file at a cemetery), making the acquisition of records more problematic.

All this discussion of oxen brings us to another phrase: "I don't know him from Adam" - at least, that is how the phrase has been altered over time. Its original form, however, is "I don't know him from Adam's off ox." The "off ox" is the one on the far right, furthest from the driver's position, so is the one least "recognized." Even less recognized would be the off ox of a Biblical entity so old as not to be known by anyone currently living: Adam, the first man. Another phrase, meaning the same, is to not know someone "from God's off ox" - God being even less recognizable than His human creation (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 96). In many cases, as we do our research, we get that same feeling about our ancestors: we wouldn't know them from Adam's off ox; one of our goals in doing family history is to gain a much closer "relationship" with those who went on before us.

As genealogists, we should always welcome the greenhorn, helping the budding researcher by teaching him/her about the resources available, even if we don't know the person from Adam's off ox. We need to focus our efforts and be in control of our tasks, not having too many irons in the fire, and striking while the iron is hot. When things seem futile and we feel as if all our efforts have gone to pot, we need to regroup, kick against the pricks, and resist being led around by the nose (especially when unscrupulous merchants try to sell us books or software that will not be effective). And when we break down those brick walls and publish our findings or give them to our living relatives, we need to put our own brand on them, earmarking the work as our own (while giving credit to the sources we use, of course, just as I have done here).


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. Heavens to Betsy & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row,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.

Morris, William, & Morris, Mary. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd Ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Mt. Carmel MBC. "The Acts of the Apostles." Bible Study Outlines. Retrieved March 23, 2007, from

Why do we Say it? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions and Cliches we Use. Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1985.

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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