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Oklahoma Agriculture in the Classroom

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Word Origins - Ag Etymology

Many of the words and phrases we use in our language every day have their source in agriculture. Because most Americans are at least two or three generations removed from farm life, these words and phrases have no meaning to us, apart from the way we have come to understand them. The word, "ram," for example, has come to mean crush or impact another object, although it has its origins in a common behavior of a male sheep, a ram. When threatened or provoked, a mature male sheep will lower its heads and charge into an opponent or predator.

Apple of My Eye

Way back when, people believed that the eye's pupil was a solid object and referred to it as an apple. Eventually the phrase "apple of his eye" took the figurative meaning we know today: Someone who is the apple of your eye is as precious as the ability to see.

Sowing Your Wild Oats

Avena fatua, a species of gras sin the oat genus, has been referred to as "wild oats" by the English for centuries. Though it's thought to be the precursor of cultivated oats, farmers have long hated it because it is useless as a cereal crop and hard to separate from cultivated oats and remove from fields. Literally sowing wild oats, then is a useles endeavor, and the phrase is figuratively applied to people engaging in idle pastimes.


  • get your goat — From an old English belief that keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows. When someone wanted to antagonize an enemy, he would take his goat, causing the milk cows to be less productive.


  • horse of a different color — Horses are registered at birth, and the registration includes a record of the horse's color. When a horse trades hands due to sale, the registration is also transferred. Sometimes the color recorded on the registration may not match the actual color of the horse, leading one to suspect the horse is not the one in the registration.
  • horse sense — Horses are intelligent animals. They demonstrate the ability act sensibly and to avoid situations that might cause them harm such as taking a fall, hence good common sense.
  • long in the tooth — The age of a horse can be roughly determined by examining its teeth, since a horse's gums recede as they age. The longer the teeth of a horse appear to be, the older the horse.

Poultry and Eggs

  • egghead — An intellectual
  • golden egg — Great profit
  • spring chicken — A young woman
  • chickens coming home to rost — A person's words or acts come back to cause trouble
  • like a chicken on a June bug — very quickly
  • mad as a wet hen — very angry
  • don't put all your eggs in one basket. — Don't risk all you have on just one thing
  • pecking order — The way people are ranked in relation to each other
  • walking on egg shells — Behaving in a careful manner so as not to offend someone
  • egg on — Urge someone on
  • like a chicken with its head cut off — In a hurried or disorganized way
  • egg on your face — Embarrassed
  • lucky break — Unexpected good fortune
  • chicken feed — Asmall sum of money
  • bad egg — A person who disappoints expectations
  • counting your chickens before they hatch — Depending on getting something before you actually get it


  • big wig — In past centuries, skins with wool were commonly used to make wigs. Judges wore large, elaborate wigs to denote their line of work. Since these men sat in judgment of others, they were obviously important. Consequently, anyone with great power became equated with a big wig.
  • black sheep — Figurative use is supposedly because a real black sheep had wool that could not be dyed and was thus worthless. But one black sheep in a flock was considered good luck by shepherds in Sussex, Somerset, Kent, Derbyshire.
  • catgut — From "kitgut," and obsolete word for "fiddle." Catgut was actually made from the intestines of sheep, not cats.
  • counting sheep — Shepherds have to count their animals when they move their flocks from place to place to make sure none have been left behind. In large flocks, this could be a long and dull job that could lull a shepherd to sleep. Counting sheep thus became a technique for falling asleep.
  • dyed in the wool — Refers to a processing step in which wool is dyed prior to spinning. Results in deeper, longer-lasting color than when yarn is dyed. Came to be used to describe anything deep and true, such as a personality trait.
  • earmark — Originally a cut or mark in the ear of sheep and cattle, serving as a sign of ownership.
  • fleece — The fibrous outer covering of a sheep. Also used as a synonym for shearing, or taking wool, from a sheep. Now used as a synonym for swindling or taking money or other valuables from another person.
  • gentle as a lamb — Sheep, in general, lack aggressive characteristics and behaviors as a result of humanity's domestication efforts. Humans wanted sheep to be docile and easy to handle and selected them for these traits. Consequently, sheep, and lambs in particular, are exceptionally gentle animals. The term is used to describe anything or anyone docile.
  • pop goes the weasel — In the days of handspinning, a weasel was a device used for measuring lengths of yarn. After a given number of turns of a spinning wheel, the weasel made a popping sound to mark the yardage. The device became a timeless part of our language because it was included in the children's song and game, "Pop Goes the Wesel."
  • pull the wool over someone's eyes — Another reference to wool wigs of the past. The wigs were large and easily slipped forward over the wearer's face. Lawyers who successfully tricked a judge would brag of having pulled the wool over the judge's eyes. This use of the term was so common it entered general usage for any trick or deceptive practice.
  • ram — A mature male sheep. Also a device used to crush or impact another object. Mature male sheep have an aggressive behavior in which they lower their heads and charge into an opponent or predator. For example, a mature male sheep may ram a human it feels threatened by.
  • score — Counting large numbers (of sheep, etc.) with a notch in a stick for each 20.
  • sheepish — Resembling a sheep in the sense of being bashful.
  • sheepskin — Diplomas were formerly made of sheepskin parchment.
  • shoddy — Because of a wool shortage in the mid 1800s, manfacturers began to collect used wool cloth and rags and reprocess them into yarn. Textile workers termed the recycled cloth "shoddy." The demand for uniforms during the Civil War greatly increased the number of shoddy garments being produced. The shoddy uniforms looked fine, but they wore out quickly. the thousands of Union soldiers who wore the shoddy uniforms began using the term to signify anything of substandard quality, just as we do today.
  • spinster — In the 1700s nearly all colonial families spun their own wool to make their own wool cloth. This work was usually done by the unmarried women in the family. The term "spinster" became equated with being a single woman. Consequently, even today single women are sometimes referred to as "spinsters."
  • two shakes of a lamb's tail — A lamb can shake its tail twice very quickly. This may be an enlargement of an older saying, "in a couple of shakes," meaning a double shake of the hand, two shakes of a dice box, two shakes of a dustcloth, or whatever it may be that takes little more time in shaking twice than in shaking once.
  • woolgathering — Indulging in wandering fancies and purposeless thinking, from the literal meaning "gathering fragments of wool torn from sheep by bushes, etc."


  • bleed like a stuck pig — The throat of a pig set for slaughter is cut or opened with a sharp spike or knife. Because the cut severs the jugular vein, the pig bleeds rapidly.
  • high on the hog — The best meat is on the upper portion of the pig. Rich people have always been afforded this luxury while the servants, slaves and poor have always had to eat pig's feet, chitterlings, cracklings, etc. - low on the hog.
  • kick the bucket — Pigs to be slaughtered are bled, that is the blood is drained from the body. One way this is accomplished is to hang the pig upside down from a bar (by one foot) that used to be known as a "buchet," a French word for it. The pig's throat was cut or opened with a sharp spike (See "bleed like a stuck pig"), and it would rapidly be bled. In its death throes, it would always, always kick the bucket.
  • let the cat out of the bag — At medieval markets, unscrupulous traders would display a pig for sale. However, the pig was always given to the customer in a bag, with strict instructions not to open the bag until they were some way away. The trader would hand the customer a bag containing something that wriggled, and it was only later that the buyer would find he'd been conned when he opened the bag to reveal that it contained a cat, not a pig. Therefore, "letting the cat out of the bag" revealed the secret of the con trick.
  • pig in a poke — A poke is a bag or a pouch. At medieval markets, unscrupulous traders would display a pig for sale. However, the pig was always given to the customer in a bag, with strict instructions not to open the bag until they were some way away. The trader would hand the customer a bag containing something that wriggled, and it was only later that the buyer would find he'd been conned when he opened the bag to reveal that it contained a cat, not a pig. The phrase refers to the failure to look inside the bag or poke.
  • pig headed — This expression dates back to the Middle Ages and the Southeast Asian country that is now known as Indonesia. According to legend there was a king who had incredible powers over the forces of nature and life and death. This king could enter a meditative state and while in that state, actually have his servant lop off his head and then put it back on without ever disturbing him. When the king wanted to show off his power, he would have his servant lop off his head with a very sharp sword. Then, they would all watch as his head mysteriously reattached itself to his shoulders.

One day, the servant cut off the king's head with a little too much force and his head rolled into the river and washed away. The servant was frantic and did not know what to do. He saw a nearby pig and thought, "That will work," and used the pig's head instead.

When the king came to, he was upset. He had his servant killed and moved his royal residence to a high tower where he lived the rest of his life. He declared that when anyone was around the tower they had to keep their eyes on the ground lest they look upward and see the pig-headed king.

This phrase eventually came to refer to someone that others must never question. It became an expression for prideful condescension where all others must recognize that the king – pig-headed that he was – was far above anyone else. He was, after all, the king. Even though in reality, he was just an extremely unattractive and unhappy man.

  • fat as a pig
  • eat like a pig
  • pig out
  • in a pig's eye — Never, highly unlikely. Whether the originator of the saying meant that a poor idea was something to put in a pig's eye or that it would look bad to a pig's eye is a matter of speculation.
  • hog heaven
  • hog wilds
  • hogwash
  • pigtail
  • piggy bank
  • male chauvinist pig
  • dirty pig
  • as messy as a pig's sty
  • bringing home the bacon — The tradition of the Dunmow Flitch began in Great Dunmow, Essex, in 1104 when a local couple so impressed the Prior of Little Dunmow with their marital devotion that he awarded them a side of bacon.
  • road hog
  • ham actor
  • pigskin