I like words. Sometimes a familiar word becomes unexpectedly unfamiliar when you are pressed in some way to unpack its history. I have books on etymology -- that aid in this unpacking -- and love learning about sayings' origins. So many fun expressions come from rural life, from farming, from animal habits. Hailing from North Carolina, I have heard my fair share of colorful ways to say "yes" emphatically that involve flatulent fat babies and where wild bears prefer to go to the bathroom. My favorite such affirmative response has always been, "Does a one-legged duck swim in a circle?"
So many farm expressions have woven themselves into how we express ourselves that our familiarity takes us farther from knowing their origins. I remember several summers ago, during a particularly rainy spell, when the clouds finally moved aside and revealed the sun. I was so elated that I barely noticed the army of tractors and farmhands that appeared, seemingly out of thin air, onto a neighboring field. I had passed that field every day and had admired how high the grasses had gotten. But on that sunny day and the two just like it that followed, my neighbor farmers "made hay while the sun shined." Making hay in the rain is simply not possible. You need a good window of a few days to cut, to leave to dry and to bale the hay, so when the sun comes in a stretch, you waste no time before you get busy.
Let's stick with rain for a minute -- an obsession in the field of farming. When it rains heavily it never fails that the frogs come hopping down the road like popcorn. Persistent heavy rain like that is a "frog strangler," where the rain comes in such abundance that even the best swimmers are strangled by the sheer volume of water. And, if you've ever spent time with a cow, you'll appreciate the vivid depiction of the most forceful kind of rain that hits the ground and bounces back up "like a cow pissing on a flat rock." Well, I had a cow stay with me last summer and when she relieved herself on the hard packed ground, I cracked up laughing. Sometimes it takes getting down on the farm to understand what the rest of your life is all about.
The first year we had our house and the construction process was dragging on, I decided to make a small pumpkin patch for my husband (who had always wanted a patch like in Charlie Brown's The Great Pumpkin). I took whatever tools I had at the time -- a rake, a hoe, a pickaxe and a shovel -- and started to prepare a small plot behind the house. I dug through thick grass and removed rocks and hacked at roots and found even more rocks. Finally, the small patch was ready for planting and for The Great Pumpkin to come. And I had learned, with every muscle in my body, what we mean when we say she's got "a hard row to hoe."
The next year, I got my first six hens and sequestered them in their cozy little coop for a few days so they could sort out "the pecking order," literally establishing which hen was in charge and which ones got pecked until they fell in line. A few of my hens never fully accepted the order and became "hen pecked" literally falling victim to the nattering and pecking of their peers until their feathers came out.
There are plenty of bee idioms as well, and if you have ever had the good fortune to see the inner workings of a beehive you will instantly understand why that girl you knew in high school was called the "queen bee" and how your own overactivity can result in you being called a "busy bee."
Expressions that allude to donkeys are a dime a dozen and pretty obvious, but since the goats on my farm are often overshadowed by their long-eared equine nemeses, I thought I would tip my hat in their direction instead. Apparently the etymology is a little shaky on "that really got your goat" but my favorite explanation is that goats are often employed as calming companions for high strung horses. God forbid that someone takes your goat, making your horse cranky and unable to help with the farm work!
All of these expressions and idioms have been a part of my lexicon for as long as I can remember. They make life more colorful. They flash compelling imagery. Each one of them has been further amplified for me personally by witnessing their namesakes firsthand. But none of them shocked me more than the origin of one word that has, for me, never been associated, in any way, with farming.
In a recent conversation about the power of radio mixed with a jocular sidebar on farm life, I came to understand that many of the first radio programs existed to share farming tips and weather forecasts with farmers. Radio programs broadcast the news to the farmers just as the farmers broadcast their seeds as a method of sowing. Yes, farmers cast seeds broadly in the field. Broad. Casting. And radio -- and other media -- took that concept and owned it (over the past 100 years) as they cast their messages to a broad audience. The connection between radio and farming practices and the unpacking of the word "broadcasting" is a thrill to me -- it unlocks a code, a hidden compartment, a travel back in time -- and occupies a place of awe in my mind as I turn it over and over like a glass marble that has a blue swirly universe captured inside it. I wonder what other expressions I am missing?
I love words. Looking inside them is like looking in a crystal ball to the past. Our language, developed alongside our industry and the keys to so many expressions are buried in the fields of our nation's farms. You just have to dig them up.
Talk farm to me, xoxo farmgirl