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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Burning question

by Brenda Looper | December 1, 2021 at 3:22 a.m.
Brenda Looper

It never fails after a Word Nerd column that readers and friends will contribute more words and phrases for me to enjoy, muse over and research. My column from a couple of weeks ago about words and phrases that make you feel like you're home did just that.

Honorary cousin Earl Babbie wrote: "I don't have any Southernisms, but I recall Vermonters grumbling as they drove slowly behind a caravan of leaf peepers when the autumn colors arrived."

I can imagine. I sometimes think Vermonters are people after my own cranky heart, who probably also curse those in the grocery store who park their carts in the middle of a busy aisle to visit (or worse, park their cart crossways at one end of the aisle then saunter from one end to the other to grab items to put in their cart instead of just taking the cart with them and leaving the end unblocked).

Former coworker Donna McGowan said: "My mom has always said 'Up Salt Creek without a paddle' when you wouldn't have a way out of a situation. I have always loved 'Party till the cows come home.'"

My grandma sometimes used that first one, but the creek was decidedly not family-newspaper-friendly. She was born in Texas, so she could naturally draw that particular single-syllable word out to several syllables (I think seven was her record).

Others piped in with their grandmothers, aunts and others "swanning," or being so prolific in their usage of down-home sayings that family members threatened to write books about them. Which, of course, I want to read.

And then Kerri Jackson Case asked: "OK, here's the one no one has ever explained to me: barn burner ... to mean an exciting event. Where did this come from? Who was burning barns? Why did this come to mean I'm having a heart attack over an OT football field goal?"

You might think she's joking on that last bit, but Kerri is a football mama who is very serious about Hall High football, for which she calls herself the "self-appointed, totally unofficial hypeman" (son Jackson is on the team).

As usual, I started with my go-to, Merriam-Webster, and found something I didn't expect. The earliest example that the dictionary's Words at Play blog found in the current usage was in 1934 (though it was referring to a game of bridge ... lord, the excitement).

"But before this 20th century use," said the blog, "barn burner had a very specific meaning in U.S. politics. The Barnburners were one of two competing factions in the New York State Democratic Party in the middle of the 19th century. John Russell Bartlett, in his 1848 'Dictionary of Americanisms,' provided a lengthy quote from the New York Tribune, which explained that the name was 'in allusion to the story of an old Dutchman who relieved himself of rats by burning his barns which they infested.' In this case, the Barnburners were so determined to get rid of systemic abuses that they were willing to destroy the system itself.

"The Barnburners were the more radical of the two political groups; the more conservative party was referred to as the Hunkers (possibly on the grounds that they were interested in a hunk of the political spoils, or because they hankered after elective office)."

The blog noted a slightly earlier use of "barn burner" came in Pennsylvania, also in reference to political radicals.

What wasn't mentioned was an 1843 New York Tribune article that mentioned other factions in the Legislature, including the Pig-Ringers and the Rutabagas. There has to be a story behind those. But that's not what we're talking about now.

After I posted that, Kerri came back with, "But how did that come to mean ... very exciting game?"

A very good question for which, unfortunately, I'm unable to provide a good answer, especially considering that the first use of the phrase in its current meaning was in reference to a game of bridge. I'm wondering if the writer of that article required smelling salts.

After scouring a lot of etymology sites and dictionaries, I haven't been able to find out why "barn burner" changed from being about political radicals to being about exciting happenings, or why a bridge game (!!!) would be the reason for the shift in meaning.

That's just the way it happens sometimes. Heck, the origin of "dog," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "remains one of the great mysteries of English etymology."

If anyone has a good theory, I'd be happy to hear it.

Since it's December, that means dictionaries are coming out with their words of the year. I'm planning to talk about those next week, but I also want to hear from you. What word or phrase (keep it family-friendly, please) sums up 2021 for you, and why?

Also, start pulling out those words and phrases that annoyed you this year in anticipation of Lake Superior State University's annual list of banished words to be announced around New Year's Day. Tell me what you'd like to see be banished to a dark corner in Siberia, and you may show up in a future column. Let me know on Facebook, my blog, or through the email below.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at

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