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shameless pleading






Yeah, they’ll eat it, but they really want pizza.

Dear Word Detective: I’m interested in the word “haymaker.” It is described as a powerful knockout punch. It is said to have been derived from an Old English word “heymakere.” Could you tell me how this name came about? — Dominique.

horsie08.pngHey, hay. I know all about hay, although when we first moved to the country, I kept saying “straw” when I meant “hay” and vice-versa. No wonder they wouldn’t let me have a horse. My question is why they stopped baling hay into little rectangular bundles and started producing those huge rolls of hay that you see sitting in the fields. I suspect that the whole “hay roll” thing was dreamed up to make rural landscapes more appealing to magazine photographers. There is, incidentally and predictably, an entire website devoted to artistic images of hay and haymaking to be found at

“Hay” is, of course, grass and other plants (alfalfa, clover, etc.) grown, harvested and dried as food for livestock. (“Straw” is the stalks of grain left after threshing, and, being inedible, is used for animal bedding and basket weaving.) Although “making hay” is done with machinery today, it used to be backbreaking physical labor very important to the survival of a farm. The hay needed to be harvested (originally by hand using scythes) and then dried in the fields for days until it was gathered. The importance of haymaking (and the danger of putting off the task until too late in the season) was memorialized way back in the 16th century in the adage “Make hay while the sun shines,” meaning “Do what needs to be done while you have the chance.”

“Hay,” being so central to human culture, is a very old word, derived from a prehistoric Germanic root meaning “that which is cut.” Figurative uses of “hay” include “hay” as slang for money, “hit the hay” meaning “go to sleep” (from the use of hay as bedding), and “hayseed” as a derogatory urban term for a rural “bumpkin” (who was imagined to have grass seed in his hair).

“Haymaker” meaning “powerful punch” harks back to the actual process of harvesting hay in the age of the scythe. The scythe, a long, curved blade on a long crooked handle, is wielded with a broad, swinging stroke. (A “sickle” is a similar but smaller blade on a short handle.) It takes a surprising amount of strength to use a scythe, and a farmhand accustomed to the chore would have a fearsome punch. Thus “haymaker,” which back in the 1400s simply meant “one who harvests and gathers hay,” came to mean, by the early 20th century, a devastating punch delivered with the same broad, powerful swing used in harvesting hay.

6 comments to Haymaker

  • Margaret

    They switched over from rectangular bales in order to give cows a more well-rounded meal.

  • Wendy

    Har-har. Actually, the machines that make the round bales pack it much more tightly than the hay in the square bales. This allows them to be left outside. While the elements do ruin the outermost layer of the hay, the rest remains in usuable condition. The square bales, on the other hand, have to be protected from the elements to keep them from going bad. Typically, they’d be put up in a barn, which was very hard work. With the current equipment and round hay bales, a lone farmer make hay without any additional assistance.

  • Maggie

    Also, I think the grade of hay is superior and obviously more expensive when it is square baled and is used more for horses, while cattle are hardier, and and can handle the inferior quality. Horse can get really sick from moldy or improperly seasoned hay.

    Hard work doesn’t describe it :) Up in the loft of the barn on a 90 degree day, tossing around 40 lb loads that shed itchy bits of material and dust all over, but its a labor of love!

  • Russ

    One note on round bales: They have a “grain” to them (pardon the pun). Like a spool of thread. It helps them to shed water.

  • Randallord Smith

    As a joke I would like to know if the meaning of “making hay” as a sexual act was deliberately avoided. : ) It IS fantastic to see the importance of little things historically to society as whole. An example of that is the crucial role comfortable clothing plays in society. Itchy, hard to clean clothing was a major issue for people that affected the quality of life and longevity! (Many diseases and infections killed people because of broken skin from scratching)

  • Martin Gingold

    I associate this word with boxing. In past years boxing was a closely followed sport. When there was a heavy weight match, you could bet that most of the TV viewers were watching it. The term was used by the announcer when a boxer started a swing from way back and it landed on the jaw of the opponent.

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