buy the farm

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English[edit]

=Etymology[edit]

Aviation Slang from 1915 In 1915, the US Army began delivering the first airmail using primitive Army "Jenny" biplanes. En route crashes were common because the early engines weren’t too reliable, crashes were frequent because of the dangers of flying in bad weather on a rigid schedule with unreliable engines. En route Barnstormer performers and Mail pilots were frequently victims of their fairly primitive radial engines simply quitting because of mechanical problems or fuel starvation. Usually, the only suitable landing field was a meadow or an open field of growing crops. If the pilot was lucky, there would be a dirt road wide enough to land the airplane but open fields were considered better because you could land, more safely, into the prevailing wind. The general rule was that the pilot would pay the farmer for the damage to the crops in exchange for allowing the plane to be trucked to a repair shop or if it was still in flying condition, the farmer would help haul it onto a local road where a mechanic would be called to come fix the airplane. Payment to the farmer was based on the amount of damage caused by the airplane. If it was just a few rows of corn, payment might be just a few dollars but If the crash demolished a farm building, or property fencing or a tractor the price was considerably more. Pilots talking to other pilots would compare crashes by bragging about who paid more for a resulting damage. In these "Hangar-Talking” sessions, someone might remember a friend’s fatal crash as being so bad that it cost more than just buying a tractor. If it was so bad that the pilot died it was said he, "Bought the farm."


Etymology[edit]

US slang, from the WWII era (first printed record in the US Air Force in the 1950's). Similar expressions like buy the plot and buy the lot also existed, although buy the farm is the only one to have survived. When a military pilot with a stricken airplane attempted to crash land in a farmer's field, he would destroy a portion of the farmer's crops for which the US government paid reimbursement to the farmer. If it were a bad crash-landing destroying most of the crops then the crash would cause the buying of the whole farm, shortened subsequently to the current idiom. Probably related to older British slang buy it, buy one or buy the packet, both seemingly ironic references to something that one does not want to buy. May come from the common reflection that once someone had finished his service he would go home and buy a farm to settle on. Also, it may be in reference to the book Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Main characters George and Lennie always talk about owning their own farm where they will have to answer to no one and "live off the fatt'a the land." Later, when George must kill Lennie they talk about how they will buy the farm when George pulls the trigger and shoots Lennie to kill him painlessly.

Verb[edit]

buy the farm ‎(third-person singular simple present buys the farm, present participle buying the farm, simple past and past participle bought the farm)

  1. (idiomatic, US, informal, euphemistic) To die; generally, to die in battle or in a plane crash.
    • 1959, Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers[1], page 131:
      You're just as dead if you buy the farm in an "incident" as if you buy it in a declared war.
    • 1984, G. Harry Stine, Manna[2], page 221:
      Then tracers laced the sky in front of me. Forget the shooting! If I get distracted now, I'll buy the farm anyway!
    • 1995, Steve Allen, “Having a Good Time”, in Ann McDonough & Kent R. Brown, editor, A Grand Entrance[3], published 2000, ISBN 087129933X, page 212:
      BETTY. Shoot, if I knew you was gonna buy the farm I coulda asked for everything you got in the world... How were you gonna do it? ¶ROGER (takes revolver out of briefcase). With this.
    • 2002, W. Barry Baird, Vietnam Journey[4], ISBN 0595226795, page 171:
      They gambled with as much reckless abandon as they flew their airplanes. They knew they might buy the farm tomorrow.

Usage notes[edit]

  • This idiom is most often found in its past tense and past participle form bought the farm.

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