bought the farm

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

bought the farm

Post by Archived Topic » Mon Nov 22, 2004 7:44 pm

I know that the phrase means someone died. It seems to be used in a context of trying to accomplish an objective. How did this phrase originate?
Submitted by Robert Port (East Greenwich, RI - U.S.A.)
Post actions:
Signature: Topic imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 7:58 pm

Robert, Here is the explanation I have heard for the origin of this phrase: Soldiers in WWI (or WWII) who died while in service had a government life insurance benefit sent home to parents. The amount was usually enough to pay off the mortgage on the family farm.
Reply from Linda Grover (Corpus Christi, Tx - Choose a Country)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 8:13 pm

By the way, I thought Texas was a country.
Reply from Linda Grover (Corpus Christi, Tx - Choose a Country)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 8:27 pm

Yep, Death and Texas go together like a broken marriage.
Reply from Erik Kowal ( - England)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 8:41 pm

Robert (and Linda), ‘Bought the farm’ or ‘buy the farm/ranch/plot or just ‘buy it/one’ has two distinctly different meanings, as you suggested (but I don’t ‘buy’ your second suggestion). I’ll discuss the two separately because they’re etymologies are not directly related.

First, death: After researching this one in several sources I came to the conclusion that our ‘Ask the Word Wizard’ was probably not correct. He quoted a 1955 source (see below), which also was probably not correct. As I was trying to summarize the conclusions of the many sources I checked (see reference list below) I stumbled on Michael Quinion’s outstanding discussion in ‘World Wide Words,’ which summarized just about everything that I had found – so here it is:
_________________________________________________

BUY THE FARM: That specific phrase turns out to be surprisingly recent, being first recorded only in the 1950s. From the evidence that Professor Jonathan Lighter has compiled in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang’ the first clear written evidence comes from the US Air Force, where it was slang for a fatal crash.

This seems to be related to several older British slang sayings, like ‘buy it’ or ‘buy one’ (usually in the form “He’s bought one!”). These are known to be British fighter pilot slang from the time of the First World War for being wounded or killed, particularly for being shot down in combat. Both seem to be ironic references to something that one could not possibly want to buy. There was also the fuller phrase ‘to buy a packet’ with the same sense (which is probably a combination of the RAF sayings with a British Army expression, ‘to stop a packet,’ where the ‘packet’ is a bullet, so meaning to be shot—either wounded or killed).

In USAF usage, there were other forms around in the early 1950s, like ‘buy the plot’ and ‘buy the lot’ (presumably references to grave plots), but ‘buy the farm’ prevailed. A story about its origin was told in an issue of ‘American Speech’ in 1955:

“Jet pilots say that when a jet crashes on a farm the farmer usually sues the government for damages done to his farm by the crash, and the amount demanded is always more than enough to pay off the mortgage and then buy the farm outright. Since this type of crash is nearly always fatal to the pilot, the pilot pays for the farm with his life.” [[note: Same quote in Ask the Wordwizard]]

This sounds suspiciously neat, not to say improbable, and the lifting of my back hairs tell me this is folk etymology. Also, Professor Lighter records people saying that they remember ‘buy the farm’ from the US Air Force and the US Army at the time of the Korean War a few years earlier, when the idea of compensation could not apply.

To judge from subscribers’ comments, there are at least two possible explanations for the expression, either of which makes more sense than the one from American Speech. There was a broad consensus that the term is based on the kind of black humour so common among people in dangerous professions.

Ann Moore put it this way: “My Air Force Officer husband told me the origin as generally accepted in USAF. When a pilot mused about retirement he would say, ‘I’m gonna buy a nice little farm and settle down’ so when a fatal crash occurred his surviving buddies would say he had ‘bought the farm’—he had retired, permanently”. Larry Krakauer suggested a possible source: “In some US war movie, there’s a character from the heartland who at some point shares his vision of the future with his buddies. After the war is over, he’s going to go back home, buy a small farm, and settle down. Later in the story, this soldier is killed, and one of his friends muses, ‘Well, I guess Joe’s bought his farm now’”.

However, others have suggested a more immediately relevant origin. Jack Burton wrote: “I understand that this term dates back at least to World War II. Each member of the U.S. armed services was issued a life insurance policy in the amount of $10,000, a great deal of money in those days. Many of the troops were unmarried youngsters who named their parents as beneficiaries. Many of the parents were still living on a farm in those days, and most farms were mortgaged. If a youngster were killed, the $10,000 dollars would be used by the parents to pay off the mortgage.”

Anecdotal evidence from several subscribers suggests that the saying is in fact at least as old as World War II, and may even date back to World War I, so perhaps being more closely linked to the older forms I quoted earlier than the written evidence suggests.
_________________________________________________

Lexicographer, Dave Wilton, who I highly respect, has a somewhat different take on ‘buy the farm.’ He says:

“There is no evidence to suggest that it is somehow linked to GI insurance . . . The most logical explanation is that the ‘farm’ is probably a burial plot. The variation ‘buy a plot,’ which Random House dates to a 1954 New York Times article [see quote below], is the key, along with other variants. . . . A Dictionary of Catch Phrases [[by Eric Partridge]] records as World War I slang, ‘become a landowner,’ another clear reference to a burial plot. . . . The references to land, meaning a burial plot, began around World War I. Stories about insurance or damage suits against the government are fanciful and little evidence exists to link them to the origin of the phrase.”
<1825 “Never mind, in closing with Crappo, [[slang for ‘the French’] if we didn't BUY IT with his raking broadsides.”—‘Naval Sketch-book’ by W. N. Glascock>

<1920 “The wings and fuselage, with 53 bullet holes, caused us to realize on our return how near we had come to ‘BUYING IT.’”—in ‘OED Supplement’ [reference to WWI], page 404>

<1929 “‘The major BOUGHT ONE, I said,’ climbing out, covered with my own slime.”—‘Canvas Fellows’ in Longstreet [reference to 1917], page 244>

<1954 “‘BOUGHT A PLOT’: Had a fatal crash.”—‘N.Y. Times’ [Jet-flight glossary], 7 March, page 20>

<1955 “BUY THE FARM; BUY A PLOT, verb phrase. . . . “ [[‘American Speech,’ XXX, page 116 – see ‘World Wide Words’ quote above]]>

<1956 “‘BUY A FARM.’ To crash . . . This expression is in allusion to the notion that the owner of a farm takes advantage to a crash on his land to collect heavy damages.”—‘USAF Dictionary’ by Heflin, page 198>

<1963 “He’d never ‘BUY THE RANCH’ the way Cal did.”—‘Exile to Stars’ by E. M. Miller, page 52>
Second meaning: To be honest, I was never aware of the above death definition of ‘buy the farm.’ The only definition I was familiar with – and was under the impression that it was commonly used – was the one that follows. I was surprised, however, to find that this definition appeared in only two sources (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang):

BUY THE FARM: To be conned or hoaxed, to accept whatever is offered, to be taken in, to be duped in a bargain, to be swindled. Also, to be worsted, to be made to suffer. This usage derived from the image of a simple country person ensnared into a bad purchase by a smooth salesman. It possibly has some connection to the older term ‘buy the rabbit,’ which means to get the bad end of a deal – the rabbit.
<1825 “If that air invoice ain’t ready soon thee’ll BUY THE RABBIT.”—‘Slang and It’s Analogues’ by Farmer & Henley, page 356>

<1961 “Looks like I’ve really BOUGHT THE FARM and all the livestock this time,”—‘TAC’ by L. G. Richards, page 135>

<1967 “Buddies, you done bought the farm.”—‘Delta’ by Mickey Spillane, page 17>

<2003 “All these women who have been taken in by the "expertise" of the Spocks of the world have really BOUGHT THE FARM.” [[Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903–98), U.S. physician and famed author of ‘Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” (1946), baby and child care expert whose permissive advice on child-training many blamed for the ‘rebellious behavior of youth” in the 1960s]]
(Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the hot off the presses 2003 listing in the OED, Oxford Dictionary of Slang, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, War Slang by Dickson, Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Picturesque Expressions by Urdang, Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Euphemism and Doubletalk by Rawson, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang)
_____________________

Ken G – August 29, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 8:56 pm

Ken. it occurs to me that the more resources one has, the less certainty one has.
Reply from Linda Grover (Corpus Christi, Tx - U.S.A.)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 9:10 pm

Linda, That’s true only if you prefer misplaced certainty! (<:)
______________________

Ken G – August 27, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 9:25 pm

"Buying the Farm" (sense one) has really sad overtones. What an arable way to go.
Reply from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 9:39 pm

Edwin, And not necessarily something to joke about, but I somehow visualize a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon with a WWI airplane taking a nosedive into a corn field with the caption: “Early farm subsidies.”

Ken – August 30, 2004

Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 9:53 pm

If you buy the farm, I suppose you're obliged to meet the grim reaper.
Reply from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

bought the farm

Post by Archived Reply » Mon Nov 22, 2004 10:08 pm

Sickle cell anaemia can be a precursor.
Reply from Erik Kowal ( - England)
Post actions:
Signature: Reply imported and archived

Re: bought the farm

Post by Laurencerowland » Thu Jun 23, 2016 2:02 pm

I'd always assumed the term 'bought the farm' derived from Steinbeck's 1937 novella "Of Mice and Men'.

After giving the book to my daughter, I was about to tell her the etymology I'd always inferred, but I thought I'd 'Google' it first.

Consensus is the phrase has no convincing etymology but emerged in 1950s.

My 'theory' fits the facts: the phrase emerged late 50s - the book was required school reading for soldiers/pilots of that generation. The lack of acknowledgement of the source could reflect a general familiarity with the novella. Of course, Steinbeck would be unlikely to be cited overtly in the USA in mid 50s, with him being seen as communist. Though required reading, the book is one of the more complained about books in the US canon (thanks Wikipedia).

Any thoughts?
Post actions:

End of topic.
Post Reply