The other day I was trying to pull out on U.S. Route 281, and the traffic was so steady that I had to wait about three minutes for an opening. As I was waiting, my father’s voice came into my head and said, “Somebody left the gate open down there.”
Dad’s been gone 30 years now, but those sorts of metaphors still live in my head, as they do for a lot of us Texans. We may have mostly moved from farms and ranches to cities, but our language is still peppered with these expressions of pastoral life. As T. K. Whipple, the literary historian pointed out, we live in a world our forefathers created, “but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, what they lived, we dream.” You cannot have the influences of the frontier or country life disappear in just a generation or two. It hangs on in interesting ways, in our myths and in our language.
One place that we can witness it with some vibrancy is in the farm and ranch expressions or metaphors that survive in our digital age. Here are twelve I’ve rounded up for you.
“I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.” It’s used to infer the poor likelihood that a given investment or prediction will come true. “Well, yes, Congress might decide to work together for the greater good, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.”
“To mend fences.” It means to make peace. “You might want to mend fences with Jayden. You’re likely to need his friendship one day.”
“Dig in your heels.” When cowboys were branding calves and roped one, they had to pull hard against them and were told to dig in their heels. Now, the phrase is used for any act of taking a tough stance. “We’re diggin’ in our heels on this contract.” Similar to “sticking to our guns.”
“Take the bull by the horns” is a good one. Face your troubles head on. Yet a similar saying warns against careless assertiveness: “Mess with the bull and you get the horns.” That expression was made particularly popular in classic films like The Breakfast Club and Some Kind of Wonderful.
“Don’t have a cow!” Bart Simpson made it world-famous. Of course, he added “man” at the end. It is about anti-empathy. I can’t validate your over-reaction. The earliest known printed use of “don’t have a cow,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was found in the Denton Record-Chronicle in 1959. The phrase appeared in quoting someone who said, “He’d ‘have a cow’ if he knew I watched 77 Sunset Strip.” Proud it showed up first in Texas.
“Till the cows come home.” That means a long time, long time. It’s almost as bad as waiting for “pigs to fly.” “Until the cows come home,” perhaps originated in the Scottish highlands. They let cows out to wander lush pastures in the spring and it would be a long time before they would make their way home. It also refers to cows coming home to be milked in the early morning hours.
“Maverick” is well-known. It is used to brand someone as a non-conformist. It is named after Samuel Maverick, a Texan who allegedly didn’t brand his cattle. That isn’t the entire truth, but that is what many have come to believe, and so that version of the story has stuck.
“All hat and no cattle” is one of my all-time favorites. I used it recently in a conversation with a teenager and he said he had never heard it before and didn’t know what it meant. I explained that it was similar to “all bark and no bite.” He didn’t get that one either. I guess trying to teach ranch metaphors to a teenager is like “herding cats.” In fairness, I didn’t understand his saying that I seemed “salty” either.
“Riding shotgun.” This started as means of naming the guy who rode on the stagecoach next to the driver, generally holding the shotgun to ward off bandits. It’s still being used 150 years later. Even modern teenagers still yell “I got shotgun!” as they run to the truck.
“Hold your horses.” Just wait a minute. Let’s think about this calmly before we jump right in and regret it. “Hold your horses, Jim. I can’t buy your truck until I talk to my wife, first.” I also like that we still measure engine power in “horses” – 400 horsepower.
“I’m on the fence about it.” Taking that new job in the oil patch in Odessa? Not sure. Still on the fence about that.
I guess the most popular metaphor of all from ranch culture is “BS,” meaning “nonsense.” It’s difficult to accurately trace its origins and attempting to do so leads us into a thicket of art form itself.
I used the word recently while giving a talk in the state Capitol building. I was asked afterward if I thought that was an appropriate term to use in such august surroundings. I said, “I imagine the expression has been used more than a few times here in the legislature, and probably, even more often, impressively illustrated.”