Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.

 

 

 

 

 

You do not need to be logged in to comment.

You can comment on any post without being registered on this site.

You do not need to use your real name (although it would be nice to do so) or your real email address.

All comments are, however, held for moderation, so it may take a day or two for yours to appear.

Almost all comments are approved (spam and personal abuse being the primary exceptions), but approval of a comment does not indicate agreement.

 

 

shameless pleading

Rag off the bush, to take the

They shoot azaleas, don’t they?

Dear Word Detective:  I am a little confused as to the meaning of the expression “take the rag off the bush.”  It seems like it means “a prayer is answered” or “one that never got answered” or, in some contexts, it means the same as “if that don’t beat all.”  The last one seems to fit best.  What is the most correct? — Darb.

That’s an interesting question, and by “interesting” I mean “infuriating.”  Seriously, this one gave me a headache.  But after spending an entire evening grappling with this phrase, I think I finally have it pinned to the mat.  So fasten your seat belts, kids, because it’s going to get a bit complicated as we attempt to unscrew the inscrutable “take the rag off the bush.”

The literal answer to your question is the easy part.  To “take the rag off the bush” means  “to excel, to be the best or most triumphantly successful.”  Used in an ironic sense, it means “to be breathtakingly outrageous” or, in the current vernacular, “to take the cake” (“You do take the rag off the bush, boy,” R. Coover, 1977).  It can also mean “to put an end to an argument or contest through overwhelming victory.”  This is actually the sense in which the phrase is used in one of its earliest appearances in print, in 1810 (“This ‘takes the rag off the bush’ so completely, that we suppose we shall hear no more … about the Chesapeake business.”)  “To take the rag off the bush” is definitely of US origin, and was probably first used in the 18th century.

That US origin is important, because if you go looking for the origin of “take the rag off the bush” on the internet, you’ll find rather long and involved explanations that trace the phrase to Ireland or Scotland and a folk tradition of tying rags to bushes near religious shrines.  It is said, for instance, that at a shrine to Saint Patrick in Ireland emigrants bound for America in the 18th and 19th centuries tied bits of cloth to a nearby bush to solicit Saint Patrick’s favor in their journey and future endeavors.  If the cloth disappeared from the bush soon after the person set sail, it meant that good fortune had been granted (or, according to other accounts, that disaster had struck).

This story about rags and bushes is, in itself, true.  There is a long tradition in Celtic (and other) cultures of “rag bushes,” often located at religious shrines or wells known for their healing powers, and supplicants do indeed tie bits of cloth to these bushes or trees to solicit aid or health. At medicinal wells and springs, for instance, it is said that as the “rag” weathers away, the affliction itself will fade.

But these “rag bushes” are almost certainly not the source of “take the rag off the bush.”  For a far more likely source, we turn to the American frontier and its nearly omnipresent guns.  It was common in the 18th and 19th centuries to hold impromptu shooting matches where the target was simply a rag hung on a bush in the distance.  A good shot would hit the rag, making it visibly jump.  A great shot would literally “take the rag off the bush,” putting an end to at least that round of the contest with an overwhelming success.

Making this sort of shooting match the likely source of “take the rag off the bush” is the fact that it fits perfectly with “triumphant success” sense of the earliest examples we have of the phrase in print.  One of these examples, from 1843, specifically refers to a shooting match, and none of them mention religious shrines.  There is, on the other hand, no scenario I can imagine involving “rag bushes” that would produce the “stunning triumph” or “take the cake” meanings of “take the rag off the bush.”   Finally, although the phrase has been widely used in the US for at least two centuries, it is virtually unknown outside the US.

13 comments to Rag off the bush, to take the

  • jl

    well that was next to no help at all. You could simply have said that shooting the rag off the bush results in a done deal – winner done proved himself. Hemmmf.

    • Lestrad

      It was a great deal of help to me. It gave a credible explanation for the origin of the expression, and in doing so covered transatlantic ground and provided me with knowledge I did not have and can now meld with knowledge I do have.

      Your comment, on the other hand, was of no help whatsoever.

  • …as heard said in the 1991 movie “doc hollywood” by woody harrelson’s character, hank:
    ‘well…don’t that take the rag off the bush.’
    .

  • Lucy

    My grandmother used to say this and I was told that it indicates a commotion. As in a bug gust of wind or quick storm that literally takes ” the rag off the bush” where they were hanging to dry.

  • Just came across your site. There are some colorful expressions from earlier years.These may amuse you:
    1. “Comes a time when every man has to clean his own outhouse.” This refers to some distasteful task a man would rather have someone else do but can find no takers.
    2 “He lost his nut.” or “He got his nut back.” In bygone days wagon wheel nuts were individually carved out. Each wheel had it’s particular nut. Wheel nuts were often used as collateral for a debt. Until you got your nut back your wagon was useless.
    3. “Well, I suppose he is an okay guy but he relieves himself too close to the house.” This can have several amgigious meanings but implies the man has a few faults.
    Outhouses could be many yards from a dwellinge. Some men (it seemed to be more of a male thing) did not bother to make the full trip. This saying faded away when indoor plunbing came into vogue.
    The quote may indicate a man will leave a task before it is properly completed, he is lazy, or unreliable.

  • [...] Southern idiom tear the rag off the bush has been used when scandalous relationships are revealed, but it’s also applicable to [...]

  • When a tree or shrub is brought from the nursery, the roots with some earth are contained within burlap. I’ve always thought that taking “the rag off the bush” immediately prior to completing the planting led to a meaning of readiness to move forward with the business at hand. Obviously the ACTUAL origin seems yet to be discovered.

    • Lestrad

      With all due respect, your suggestion is less credible. And in the field of etymology, credibility is often the only criterion.

  • Connie Walls

    And yet another explanation … my mother told me that in the South at cotton picking time, one would hang a rag on a bush to signal where the next day’s picking should begin. It was an outrage if someone “tore the rag off’n the bush” because it disrupted the complete and orderly harvesting of the cotton. That’s my folks’ etymology anyhow.

  • Caroline

    My aunt would say, ‘There’s a rag for every bush’. She used this saying when referring to the possibility of everyone finding the right someone to marry. I would like to know the origin of this phrasing coming into use.

  • Joseph Yates

    An elderly and colorful neughbor lady from Texas used that expression “they were really tearin’ the rag off the bush” to mean they were creating quite a commotion…she pretty much spoke in Southern idiom, and it was always fun to listen.

  • Libby Stone

    A large part of my family was from the south and I still use this expression. It means someone has finally done the most stupid or outrageous thing ever.

    Tearing the rag off the bush is also not a delicate expression. Women, before sanitary napkins were invented, used to put their menstrual cloths on the bushes to dry after the washed them.

    I am close to 70 and my relatives who frequently used this expression were born from 1880 to about 1920.

  • [...] found two popular meanings, or I should say ways the expression is used. Nothing is every simple. From Word Detective: To “take the rag off the bush” means “to excel, to be the best or most triumphantly [...]

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

(and see each issue
much sooner)

unclesamsmaller
by Subscribing.

If you are already a subscriber, you can find Subscriber Content here.

 

Follow us on Twitter!