buy the farm
To buy the farm is to die, usually in a battle or aircraft accident. It has spawned several false explanations of its origin. The phrase as we know it dates to the 1950s, but has its roots in older variants. The farm in the phrase is a metaphor for a grave, the last plot of land a soldier will own.
The earliest variant is the phrase to buy it. From W. N. Glascock’s Naval Sketch-Book in 1825:
Never mind, in closing with Crappo, if we didn’t buy it with his raking broadsides.
Crappo in this quotation is a slang word for the French, especially used in reference to French sailors.
Buy it is still in use today. From Noble’s With a Bristol Fighter Squadron, 1920, in reference to the WWI:
The wings and fuselage, with fifty-three bullet holes, caused us to realize on our return how near we had been to “buying it.”1
And from Warren Zevon’s 1978 song Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner:
Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland’s Thompson gun and bought it.2
WWI also saw nouns paired with the verb to buy. From Frasier & Gibbons’ Soldier & Sailor Words of 1925:
Packet, a bullet wound, e.g. it would be said of a wounded man:—He “stopped a packet” or “bought a packet"—i.e., got hit by a bullet. Also, any trouble or unexpected bad luck.3
And Longstreet’s Canvas Falcons of 1929 includes this reference to 1917 air combat:
“The major bought one,” I said, climbing out, covered with my own slime.
7 March 1954 sees the New York Times record in an article on Air Force slang:
Bought a plot: Had a fatal crash.
The same year sees in Frank Harvey’s Jet:
Those jet jockeys just bought the shop, didn’t they?4
Partridge’s Dictionary of Catchphrases records become a landowner as WWI slang meaning to die, the first use of the metaphor of acquiring land meaning death.5
Finally, in 1955 the form buy the farm is recorded. It first appears in print in an article in American Speech, along with a false explanation of its origin:
BUY THE FARM; BUY A PLOT, v.phr. Crash fatally. (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.")6
From the earlier variants on the phrase, it is clear that the notion of the government buying land damaged in a crash is not the origin of the phrase. A variation on this myth is that the phrase is linked to a soldier’s insurance, which would allow his family to pay off the mortgage on their farm if he died. This is also false.
Buy the farm is only one of a long list of variants that dates back nearly two centuries.
2Warren Zevon and David Lindell, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” in Excitable Boy (Los Angeles: Asylum Records, 1978).
4Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 338.
5Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Catch Phrases, edited by Paul Beale, Revised and Updated Edition, 1985 (Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1992), 274.
6Leo F. Engler, “A Glossary of United States Air Force Slang,” American Speech 30, no. 2 (May 1955): 116.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton