Q From Roger Beale, UK: Where does the US phrase to buy the farm, meaning to die, come from?
A That specific phrase turns out to be surprisingly recent, being first recorded only in the 1950s. From the evidence that Professor Jonathan Lighter has compiled in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the first clear written evidence comes from the US Air Force, where it was slang for a fatal crash.
This seems to be related to several older British slang sayings, like buy it or buy one (usually in the form “He’s bought one!”). These are known to be British fighter pilot slang from the time of the First World War for being wounded or killed, particularly for being shot down in combat. Both seem to be ironic references to something that one could not possibly want to buy. There was also the fuller phrase to buy a packet with the same sense (which is probably a combination of the RAF sayings with a British Army expression, to stop a packet, where the packet is a bullet, so meaning to be shot — either wounded or killed).
In USAF usage, there were other forms around in the early 1950s, like buy the plot and buy the lot (presumably references to grave plots), but buy the farm prevailed. A story about its origin was told in an issue of American Speech in 1955:
Jet pilots say that when a jet crashes on a farm the farmer usually sues the government for damages done to his farm by the crash, and the amount demanded is always more than enough to pay off the mortgage and then buy the farm outright. Since this type of crash is nearly always fatal to the pilot, the pilot pays for the farm with his life.
This sounds suspiciously neat, not to say improbable, and the lifting of my back hairs tell me this is folk etymology. Also, Professor Lighter records people saying that they remember buy the farm from the US Air Force and the US Army at the time of the Korean War a few years earlier, when the idea of compensation could not apply.
To judge from subscribers’ comments, there are at least two possible explanations for the expression, either of which makes more sense than the one from American Speech. There was a broad consensus that the term is based on the kind of black humour so common among people in dangerous professions.
Ann Moore put it this way: “My Air Force Officer husband told me the origin as generally accepted in USAF. When a pilot mused about retirement he would say, ‘I’m gonna buy a nice little farm and settle down’ so when a fatal crash occurred his surviving buddies would say he had ‘bought the farm’ — he had retired, permanently”. Larry Krakauer suggested a possible source: “In some US war movie, there’s a character from the heartland who at some point shares his vision of the future with his buddies. After the war is over, he’s going to go back home, buy a small farm, and settle down. Later in the story, this soldier is killed, and one of his friends muses, ‘Well, I guess Joe’s bought his farm now’ ”.
However, others have suggested a more immediately relevant origin. Jack Burton wrote: “I understand that this term dates back at least to World War II. Each member of the U.S. armed services was issued a life insurance policy in the amount of $10,000, a great deal of money in those days. Many of the troops were unmarried youngsters who named their parents as beneficiaries. Many of the parents were still living on a farm in those days, and most farms were mortgaged. If a youngster were killed, the $10,000 dollars would be used by the parents to pay off the mortgage.”
Anecdotal evidence from several subscribers suggests that the saying is in fact at least as old as World War II, and may even date back to World War I, so perhaps being more closely linked to the older forms I quoted earlier than the written evidence suggests.