Mixed Bag.

My wife asked me where the phrase mixed bag came from, and even as I was racing for the dictionaries she called out “I’ll bet it’s from hunting.” Unsurprisingly, she was right (though it wouldn’t have occurred to me); OED (entry updated September 2002):

a. An assortment of game killed while hunting. Cf. bag n. 9.

1867 S. W. Baker Nile Tributaries Abyssinia xvi. 417 There was an immense quantity of large game, and I made a mixed bag of elephants, hippopotami, buffaloes, rhinoceros, giraffes, and great numbers of the large antelopes.
1895 Littell’s Living Age 24 Aug. 500/1 The chance of a small mixed bag, perhaps including some of the rarer wild fowl.
2002 Woodcock Scent in uk.rec.shooting.game (Usenet newsgroup) 30 Jan. We had a mixed bag of woodcock and snipe during the day and widgeon during the evening flight.

b. A diverse or heterogeneous assortment of people or things. Also figurative.

1919 F. M. Duncan Insect Pests iii. 48 It will be with quite a mixed ‘bag’ of foes that the enthusiastic hunter [sc. a gardener] will return.
1925 Econ. Jrnl. 35 617 It is a mixed bag: ephemeral narratives.., short essays [etc.].
1989 Dirty Linen Spring 12/2 The musicians on this recording are a mixed bag of English and Indian players.
1994 Denver Post 8 Feb. a1/2 President Clinton’s 1995 budget plan delivered a mixed bag of gains and pains to Colorado yesterday.

Interesting (though not surprising) that the hunting sense is still in use; though they only take the figurative sense back to 1919, a quick Google Books search found William Senior’s Mixed Bag: A Medley of Angling Stories and Sketches (1895), which certainly suggests it wasn’t only in literal use then.


  1. I made a mixed bag of elephants, hippopotami, buffaloes, rhinoceros, giraffes, and great numbers of the large antelopes

    That’s a big-ass bag.

    Is the implication that ‘bag’ in the verbal sense, meaning to hunt and catch an animal, was already a metaphorical usage derived from the plain meaning of bag?

    ETA: Although I suppose that a British person accustomed to hunting ducks and quail and bunny rabbits and so on would have literally put what they killed in a bag, and so continued the usage when they went to Africa and found bigger game.

  2. Yes, bag 9 (entry not fully updated since 1885) is:

    9. Shooting. = Game-bag; hence, the contents of a game-bag, the quantity of fish or game however large (embracing e.g. elephants and buffaloes) killed at one time; the produce of a hunting, fishing, or shooting expedition. figurative. Hence in plural (slang), much, many, ‘heaps’.

    1486 Bk. St. Albans B iij Ye most take a partrich in yowre bagge.
    1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement 196/2 A fauconner’s bagge, gibissière.
    1858 W. H. Russell My Diary in India 16 Mar. (1860) I. xxi. 348 The philanthropists who were cheering each other with the thought that there was sure ‘to be a good bag at Lucknow’, will be disappointed.
    1863 J. H. Speke Jrnl. Discov. Source of Nile iii. 36 ‘The bags’ we made counted two brindled gnu, four water-boc, one pallah-boc, and one pig.
    1900 Daily News 9 June 5/5 Our bag was 4 engines and 84 trucks, with a quantity of coal.
    1917 P. Gibbs Battles of Somme 105 ‘We took bags of ‘em [sc. Germans],’ said an officer.
    1919 W. H. Downing Digger Dial. 9 Bags, plenty; a large number.
    1919 J. B. Morton Barber of Putney xvii. 285 There’s bags of good names, and yet blokes go an’ call their kids Ermyntrude.
    1930 J. Brophy & E. Partridge Songs & Slang Brit. Soldier: 1914–1918 96 Bags, plenty, lots. E.g. ‘Got any bully?’—‘Yes, bags of it.’ And especially bags of room.
    1930 C. V. Grimmett Getting Wickets i. 32 It was with Prahran that I recorded my big successes in club cricket, my ‘bags’ in four seasons being 67, 39, 68 and 56 wickets respectively.
    1955 Times 19 Aug. 2/5 A retrospective exhibition..an exhibition of drawings..and now a film..this is Picasso’s ‘bag’ for the summer of 1955.
    1962 A. Wesker Chips with Everything i. i. 12 We ‘ad bags o’ fun, bags o’ it.

    1881 W. Harcourt Speech at Glasgow 26 Oct. Lord Salisbury and Sir S. Northcote..had a rattling day at Newcastle and Beverley—but I ask myself what is their bag?

    I like both the title Chips with Everything and the quote “We ‘ad bags o’ fun, bags o’ it.” That’s hemphasis!

  3. To me “mixed bag” specifically implies “some good stuff and some bad stuff”, like the OED’s 1994 quote. This sub-sense (a journalistic cliché?) seems distinct from “a diverse or heterogeneous assortment”, since it doesn’t have to be heterogeneous except in valence.

  4. 1919 J. B. Morton Barber of Putney xvii. 285 There’s bags of good names, and yet blokes go an’ call their kids Ermyntrude.
    1930 J. Brophy & E. Partridge Songs & Slang Brit. Soldier: 1914–1918 96 Bags, plenty, lots. E.g. ‘Got any bully?’—‘Yes, bags of it.’ And especially bags of room.

    I think that “bags” meaning “a lot of” is a different usage, that could be classified with other terms with the same meaning, like “yards”, “lashings” or “whips”.

    Another usage is “bags I” claim the right to have something or do something, or “he bagged the best chair”. That might be related to a game-bag, because you could say “he bagged twelve partridges this afternoon”.

  5. jack morava says

    cf mixed grill ?

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    @David L.: Re the antiquity of the use of “bag” as a verb meaning “kill while hunting,” here’s a sentence from a book published in 1876: “We had another day’s shooting at San Joseph, and bagged a deer, besides catching immense quantities of fish.”

    That’s from “Sporting Adventures in the Pacific, Whilst in Command of the ‘Reindeer,'” written by this guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kennedy_(Royal_Navy_officer). The H.M.S. Reindeer was in port somewhere in Mexico when the author and his companions went on the hunt in question.

  7. bags I…

    If I remember correctly (never a certainty at this point in my life) there was a verb ‘bagsy’ derived from this. As in, you can’t take last piece of chocolate cake, I bagsied it!

  8. Pohaku Nezami says

    I’m not sure of the relationship with the hunting sense of meaning, if any, but the first thing that came to my mind was “my bag,” as in, “that type of writing is not my bag,” which, as I recall, was ubiquitous and somewhat hip in the late 60s and 70s. Some details here: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/84413/where-does-the-term-my-bag-come-from#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20origin%20of,not%20my%20sort%20of%20thing.%22

  9. “We had another day’s shooting at San Joseph, and bagged a deer, besides catching immense quantities of fish.”

    They were shooting fish? Not sure I’d want to eat deer that’d been in a mixed bag with fish.

  10. cuchuflete says

    In jazz slang bag is a preferred style. More broadly, it’s an avocation or obsession.

    Probably totally unrelated, “Bags” was the nickname of vibraphonist Milt Jackson, known as a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    @AntC: I’m afraid that you, sir, may lack the spirit of adventure that was expected of the crew of the H.M.S. Reindeer in those bygone days.

  12. @Pohaku Nezami, cuchuflete: I think “bag” in jazz and countercultural argot originally meant “drug preference.”

  13. I think “bag” in jazz and countercultural argot originally meant “drug preference.”

    Why do you think that?

  14. Yes, that doesn’t seem justified. OED:

    (not) to be one’s bag slang (originally U.S.): (not) to match one’s personal style, taste, or preference; (not) to form part of one’s interest, preoccupation, or area of expertise. Usually in negative contexts. Cf. thing n.¹ 4d.

    1966 N.Y. Times 20 Nov. d13/2 They were trying to categorize me..as a racial satirist, but that’s not my bag. Let’s say I deal in universal human foibles.
    1972 Edmonton (Alberta) Jrnl. 26 June 73/1 A face-lift might not be your bag… Your problem could call for special reconstruction.
    1988 M. Marrin Eye of Beholder xv. 105 I didn’t think art was your bag.
    1993 Options Aug. 112/4 Then there’s golf—both hotels have their own courses—tennis, sailing, and hunting, shooting and fishing, if that’s your bag.
    2008 Independent 26 Jan. (Mag.) 47/1 If digging is not your bag then think about covering the area with black landscape fabric to suppress weeds.

  15. We here, on the contrary, should say not my hat. For such a famous problem, there are surprisingly few non-pdf write-ups, at least as served by gggggoogle.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    The Routledge Dictionary of American Slang and Unconventional English dates “bag” in the sense “package of drugs” to 1952,* with a variety of other slang terms I can’t say I recall personally encountering then building on that sense (“bag-chaser,” “bag-follower,” “bag money” plus the phrase “bags are dragging,” which is glossed as “the supply of heroin is low”). The same reference work dates “bag” in the senses “an interest” and “a way of doing things” to 1964 and 1962, respectively, although I’m frankly unsure that those are really distinct senses. Doesn’t strike me as crazy to think they could be derived from the earlier drug sense, but possibility is not the same as proof. So maybe more research needed? I searched an online version of Mezz Mezzrow’s memoir, which I thought might be a goldmine of jazz-hipster dialect, and did not find any relevant uses of “bag.”

    *I probably first encountered bare “bag” in this sense in the lyrics of the Clash’s “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” at age 14 or so, but was already familiar with compounds like “nickel bag” and “dime bag.”

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    “Bag” the sense of “personal preference” invariably reminds me of the unfreezing scene at the beginning of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. I’m just that highbrow.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    @David E.: That Routledge reference work I mentioned has an Austin Powers quotation as one of those illustrating their “interest” sense of “bag.” It’s their only citation for it after the mid-’70’s …

    I’m not sure the same work’s various senses of “bag” as a verb cover that in e.g. “bag your face,” made famous among my generational cohort by Moon Unit Zappa in 1982.

  19. I don’t even know what that means!

  20. Urban Dictionary’s first definition covers it accurately. Later in “Valley Girl,” Moon also says: “She’s like, ‘Oh my God, like, bag those toenails,'” which I’m not sure was actually a real thing someone would say.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    WIktionary’s sense 5 of “bag” as a verb (“To forget, ignore, or get rid of”) seems to cover the “bag those toenails” use. I am genuinely unsure whether the “bag your face” usage should be interpreted as literally as Urban Dictionary has it or whether it’s more in the forget/ignore/get-rid-of category (with “face” as synecdoche for the whole person, and thus meaning something like “well, the hell with you”). I also don’t know whether “bag your face” was a pre-existing stock phrase in pre-existing Valspeak before the record came out, or if Moon improvised it as a novel combination of existing materials and it only came into use as an allusion to the song.

  22. I also meant to say that I can’t be the only American who, like David Eddyshaw, associates my bag with that scene Austin Powers. Many Americans were probably not even familiar with the relevant meaning, it having been British slang that peaked in thr 1960s (from which Powers had just arrived). Oddly, if one was unfamiliar with the phrase, it made the scene more confusing that it dealt with the actual contents of a bag containing Austin’s (Swedish-made penis pump and other) belongings.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know that the “[not] my bag” idiom was markedly British in its heyday, it’s just that at least in the U.S. it had faded from active usage (at least by teenagers) before my own turn-of-the-Eighties teenage years, and thus lots of folks in my cohort were reintroduced to it by Austin Powers as we were hitting (or already past …) the age of 30.

    Note the slightly different usage in the lyrics of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” released in 1969:

    You love me, you hate me, you know me and then
    You can’t figure out the bag I’m in

  24. Kate Bunting says

    Some years ago, a friend sent me a canvas bag bearing the legend “Books are my bag” (we’ve both worked as librarians). I was unfamiliar with the expression and had to look up what it meant.

  25. “[not] my bag” looks like it comes directly from jazz musicians argot – the stack exchange post cites cal tjader’s latin bag (1961) and james brown’s brand new one (1965) among its early examples. but the OED’s attempts to abstract it don’t seem to me to match the citations: it quite transparently means “groove” or “flavor” in all these early cases, with tjader’s phrase replacing jelly roll morton’s “spanish tinge”, expanding to mean “repertoire” or “stylistic/genre zone”. the least directly music-related citation, jon hendricks on “lack of acceptance”, seems to my ear to be quite clearly talking about social repertoire rather than “characteristic style”, just as the artist who doesn’t do “racial satir[e]” is talking about repertoire, not “taste”, “preference”, or “preoccupation”.

    i feel there’s a certain relationship here to “in the pocket”, in its jazz sense, meaning “firmly anchored in the rhythm/groove” and by extension “centered in the stylistic space”. “bag”, “pocket”, and “inside”/”outside” as terms for stylistic orientation and positioning all share a semantic image/metaphor/logic. which doesn’t help etymologically, but might point out where to look. even leaving aside the fact that “bag of tea” is amazingly implausible for anything but a sack for shipping or a purchase of a week’s supply of loose leaves, it makes “bag of tricks” seem like the more likely source among the fixed phrases and idioms that have been proposed. but i wouldn’t be shocked if, like so much slang, it originated with a specific person or small clique’s idiosyncracy, or with a line from a movie or book*.

    * i thought it might have turned up in the amazing glossary of carl van vechten’s harlem novel, but it does not (unlike “bodacious” and “copacetic”, which do, in slightly different spellings).

  26. There’s a concept of putting a paper bag over your head to escape an embarrassing situation. That may be where Moon Zappa was coming from.

    I believe it comes from a Peanuts comic strip where Charlie Brown is eating lunch in the schoolyard and something happens with the “little red-haired girl”, I don’t remember all the details.

  27. @maidhc: In one of the lesser-known Charlie Brown animated specials,* he spends his summer camp with a bag over his head (to disguise, as I recall, the rash he has that looks like the seams on a baseball). The paper bag over the head was a regular gag in the comics, and the animated storyline was adapted from an plotline in the comics—probably a lot longer than most of Schulz’s one-off bag jokes.

    * The Web informs me it was “It’s an Adventure, Charlie Brown,” which I must have seen when it first aired in the 1980s.

  28. “Bag it” probably came from “stuff it” or “shove it”, holding in the secreting sense, but eliminating the more peripheral intimations.

  29. There’s also the UK sense of “get or grab” as in “bag a bargain”, which could be an offshoot of the hunting sense or might mean simply “put it in your bag”.

  30. Stu Clayton says

    Walter Bagehot and Francis Bacon were fighters:

    # This long-established name is ultimately of Old Germanic origin, from the personal name “Bago, Bac(c)o, Bahho”, derived from the root verb “bag-“, to fight. This was a relatively popular name among the Normans, who introduced it into England after the Conquest of 1066 in the forms “Bacus, Bacon”, and “Bague”. The surname Baggott and its variant forms Baggett, Bagot(t) and Bagehot derive from a diminutive form (with the suffix “-et”) of the personal name, recorded as “Bagot” in 1125 in Staffordshire.

    Read more: https://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Bagehot#ixzz7iR8Tr4tr #

  31. Since this is the deer hunting thread (I guess), I wanted to mention that I learned the word fermison recently, from this Stack Exchange question. It means the time of year during which hunting of male deer was forbidden.

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