Fact Check

Etymology of Buy the Farm

Were death benefits paid to beneficiaries of soldiers who died in battle often enough to pay off the mortgage on the family farm, hence the deceased was said to have 'bought the farm'?

Published Feb. 26, 2002


Claim:   The death benefits paid to the beneficiaries of soldiers who died in battle were often enough to pay off the mortgage on the family home or farm, hence the deceased was said to have "bought the farm."

Status:   Undetermined.

Origins:   This term has been part of the


English lexicon since at least 1955, but its origins are unclear. Some theorize that an American soldier's G.I. insurance was sufficient to enable his family to settle the mortgage back home, thus a death in battle was succinctly described as "He bought the farm."

The problem with this etymology is that it has yet to prove out. Though "buying the farm" did become a way of saying "he died" (in battle or otherwise, soldier or anyone else), the connection between G.I.s' death benefits and swarms of families paying off mortgages with those sadly-gained funds is tenuous at best.

Others postulate the term derived from wistful statements uttered by aviators who later met the Grim Reaper in dogfights; each making a statement to the effect that after the war was over, he'd like to

settle down and buy a farm. "He bought the farm" thus became a way of saying "His war is now over."

Another theory leaves out soldiers entirely — according to it, farmers whose buildings were hit by crashing fighter planes would sue the government for damages, and those damages were often enough to pay off all outstanding mortgages on the property. Since very few pilots would survive such a crash, the pilot was said to have "bought the farm" with his life.

These are charming tales filled with imagery and romance, but nothing other than our desire to believe supports any of them. Moreover, "to buy it" (meaning "to die") existed in the language long before "to buy the farm" did. It's more reasonable to suppose the one is an extension of the other, with "the farm" substituting for (the often unstated) "it."

The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition of "buy":

To suffer some mishap or reverse, specifically to be wounded; to get killed, to die; (of an airman) to be shot down.

The earliest use of "buy" in this sense dates to 1825, more than a century before the earliest appearance of "buy the farm."

Lexicographer Dave Wilton concludes "the farm" is a slang reference to a burial plot (i.e., a piece of ground). "Buy a plot" appeared around the time of "buy the farm" (both mean the same thing), but it's a particular snippet of World War I slang that ties it all together: "Become a landowner" thus means "to inhabit a cemetery plot."

Barbara "plot twist" Mikkelson

Last updated:   13 July 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Hendrickson, Robert.   Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.

    New York: Facts on File, 1997.   ISBN 0-86237-122-7.

    Wilton, Dave.   Etymologies and Word Origins: Letter B.

    Wilton's Word & Phrase Origins.   16 July 2001  

    The Compact Oxford English Dictionary.

    Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.   ISBN 0-19-861258-3.