Barn Burner.

I’ve always liked the phrase barn burner, which I probably first heard from sports announcers as a kid: “Boy, that was a real barn burner!” Merriam-Webster has a good explanation of the history behind it:

Today barn burner is often used to describe a sporting event or some other contest, such as a political race, which occasions a good deal of excitement.

But before this 20th century use, barn burner had a very specific meaning in US 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). […] It has long been thought that the New York Barnburners were the originators of that term (aside from the occasional person who literally burned down a barn), but recent findings have indicated that the term began its life describing radicals in a neighboring state, Pennsylvania, slightly earlier.

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Comments

  1. My high school chess coach once uttered, in entirely sincere excitement: “This looks like it’s going to turn into a pawn-pushin’ barn burner!” For the next two years, “pawn-pushin’ barn burner” was the chess club’s catch phrase.

  2. One of my favorite works of fiction is William Faulkner’s Barn Burning. It opts more for “willingness to tear the whole system down” than “occasioning a good deal of excitement.” At least in its deployment of the term. In the end Faulkner seems to come down on the side of civilization. But the energy with which he dramatizes the Hun suggests some ambivalence.

    I do worry about what this choice says about my relationship with my father.

  3. Marja Erwin says:

    The university’s site offers a few more formats, but unfortunately, inflicts a lot of animation on visitors.

  4. Nothing to do, then, with a barn stormer. But I wonder if the connotation of “something very exciting” has sort of bled over from barnstorming to barnburning?

  5. Huh. I would’ve though Hunkers got their name from “hunker down,” as a metaphor for people who were so satisfied with the way things were that they didn’t intend to move at all — especially because early references to “Old Hunkers” indicate the term was sometimes used interchangeably with “Conservative” or “semiconservative.”

    Incidentally, a historical newspaper search turned up a March 1843 reference in the New York Tribune that listed several political factions: Conservatives, Barnburners, Old Hunkers, Pig-Ringers and Rutabagas.

  6. Well, now I want to know about the Pig-Ringers and Rutabagas.

  7. Damn, that sounds folksy.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    19th century American politics was in general a goldmine for delightful lexical terms describing factions. Locofocos and Mugwumps! Doughfaces and Stalwarts! Etc etc.

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    My (current) favorite 19th century expression is “stemwinder.” Its meaning is close to the modern usage of “barn burner” but if used today is likely to be understood as just the opposite.

  10. Huh, I always vaguely thought of a stem-winder as just a long speech, but now that I look it up I see it’s “one that is first-rate of its kind; esp : a stirring speech.”

  11. @ajay: I think you are probably right. My own impressions of the meaning of “barn burner” (pushing pawns aside) do seem to be contaminated by “barnstormer.”

  12. Googling suggests that pig-ringers are people who specialize in putting rings into pig’s noses. These are more clips than rings, and prevent pigs from rooting holes in meadows, forcing them to eat what is on the surface, such as acorns.

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