Reading this Crankshaft strip this morning I was reminded that I've been meaning to look up the origin of the phrase “bought the farm” meaning “be killed.” It certainly isn’t obvious.
The Random House Dictionary of American Slang offers this rather strained explanation:
orig. US Air Force use. Jet pilots say that when a jet crashes on a farm the farmer usually sues the government for damage 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 (i.e. in a jet fighter) is nearly always fatal to the pilot, the pilot pays for the farm with his life.How common could such crashes be? Unless farm buildings were hit, it seems as if most farms would recover fairly easily from a plane crash.
In this instance I like the explanation by Barbara Mikkelson on Snopes.com better:
This term has been part of the English lexicon since at least 1955, but its origins are unclear. Some theorize that an American soldier’s G.I. insurance was sufficient to enable his family to settle the mortgage back home, thus a death in battle was succinctly described as “He bought the farm.”
The problem with this etymology is that it has yet to prove out. Though “buying the farm” did become a way of saying “he died” (in battle or otherwise, soldier or anyone else), the connection between G.I.s’ death benefits and swarms of families paying off mortgages with those sadly-gained funds is tenuous at best.
Others postulate the term derived from wistful statements uttered by aviators who later met the Grim Reaper in dogfights; each making a statement to the effect that after the war was over, he’d like to settle down and buy a farm. “He bought the farm” thus became a way of saying “His war is now over.”
Another theory leaves out soldiers entirely: according to it, farmers whose buildings were hit by crashing fighter planes would sue the government for damages, and those damages were often enough to pay off all outstanding mortgages on the property. Since very few pilots would survive such a crash, the pilot was said to have “bought the farm” with his life.
These are charming tales filled with imagery and romance, but nothing other than our desire to believe supports any of them. Moreover, “to buy it” (meaning “to die”) existed in the language long before “to buy the farm” did. It’s more reasonable to suppose the one is an extension of the other, with “the farm” substituting for (the often unstated) “it.” The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition of “buy”:
To suffer some mishap or reverse, specifically to be wounded; to get killed, to die; (of an airman) to be shot down.
The earliest use of “buy” in this sense dates to 1825, more than a century before the earliest appearance of “buy the farm.”
Lexicographer Dave Wilton concludes “the farm” is a slang reference to a burial plot (i.e., a piece of ground). “Buy a plot” appeared around the time of “buy the farm” (both mean the same thing), but it’s a particular snippet of WorldThis expression reminds me of the popular culture trope whereby parents lie about the death of a family pet by telling their kids that the animal has gone to live “on a nice farm upstate.”
War I slang that ties it all together: “Become a landowner” thus means “to inhabit a cemetery plot.”
The reference to “upstate” would point to a New York origin, but I would love to know how and when this notion was first popularized. I have been unable to trace how far back this expression goes, but it pops up frequently.
References to this supposed practice rarely if ever refer to the actual death of a pet or to literal death. There has recently been a spate of uses of the expression referring to changes on various talk shows.
Here is a sample headline about the change of hosts on The Tonight Show:
Jimmy Fallon Will Send Jay Leno To Live On A Farm Upstate.The same expression was used of Stephen Colbert leaving his show on the Comedy Network:
a few weeks before Colbert was sent to live on a farm upstate (sorry, kids)Another reference is used in connection with the disposal of the David Letterman Late Show set:
This is what it felt like when your mother, bereft because your father had left for cigarettes and disappeared for 40 years, told you your pet squirrel had gone to live on a farm upstate, and then you walked in on her cuddling with Sgt. Squirms, only for her to insist this wasn't the same squirrel.Another writer uses this trope to refer to dismissing an idea for a blog post:
I’m starting to write a post here on Palestra Back (a post which has been sent off to live on a farm upstate with other mediocre post ideas).I began this blog post with reference to the deaths of pilots. Let’s put this discussion out to pasture with this instance in which “pilot” has a different meaning:
On a list of failed shows where Peter Boyle plays a talking police dog, Poochinski owns the number one spot. And it’s not for lack of trying either. Poochinski earned the position by undershooting even the lowest aspirations of its premise with a cascade of exhausting jokes, arduous exposition, and animatronics straight from the nightmare dog park of the uncanny valley. Then it does us one better. Remove the whole “dog can talk and operate stereo equipment” vehicle, and Poochinski is still a confusing, toneless mess. The show’s bizarre place in network television history — coupled with its equally bizarre spot in four writers’ “good idea” book — makes Poochinski one of the worst pilots to ever go live on a farm upstate somewhere.