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Around the Campfire: The meanings and origins of many fun camping idioms

A recent holiday weekend brought several young families to the campground. Folks of all ages joined us around the campfire. After brief introductions were made, a young child asked an RVer this question: “Can I see ‘your neck of the woods’?” The RVer had mentioned this phrase during the conversation. The little boy thought it meant a tattoo! A lively conversation followed—all about camping idioms or folk-isms—their meanings and origins.

Confusion clarified

The child didn’t correctly understand the idiom, “your neck of the woods.” We explained that the phrase has nothing to do with the woods surrounding our campground or the important body part that holds your head to your shoulders. Instead, the folk-ism or idiom refers to any place a person calls home. It might be a region, a state, or a local neighborhood. “Your neck of the woods” is really any place a person feels comfortable or at home.

So many camping idioms, so little time

What followed was a fun (and funny) brainstorming session. Folks around the fire tried to name as many idioms about camping, RVing, and/or nature as possible. We worked against the clock, er, fire. We wanted to tally results before the campfire went out.

I was intrigued by the conversation, so I did a little digging and found the most likely origins of just a few of the idioms on our list. I thought you might like to know them, too.

My neck of the woods

Historians think that the word “neck” is derived from several Native American dialects, where “niaick” meant “corner or point.” So “my neck of the woods” means my point or corner of the forest—the area where I live.

Add fuel to the fire

This idiom means to make a bad situation even worse. A fire is often a bad circumstance. If you add fuel (an accelerant) to the fire, you’ll prolong the blaze or make it worse.

“Adding fuel to the fire” is thought to have originated in the days of the ancient Romans. In fact, the idiom has been found in some of their earliest historical writings (27 B.C.).

Note: Campers generally use these words in literal terms: Put another log on the campfire!

Riding shotgun

Today, this idiom refers to the front passenger seat in a vehicle. The size, make, or model of the vehicle doesn’t matter. To ride shotgun is a favorite spot for many children and often a heated discussion erupts over who gets to sit there.

The origin of “riding shotgun” comes from the Wild West days in America. Often two men rode atop the stagecoaches that were prevalent at the time. One man served as the driver and directed the horses to the coach’s intended destination. The other man sat next to the driver, with shotgun at the ready. He served as a lookout, ready to defend the stagecoach from any approaching threat.

“Riding shotgun” originally meant supplying aid or offering help to others, but we all know that the idiom has changed since the arrival of the automobile.

Here are some of the other camping idioms the campfire folks listed:

  • In the same boat
  • A little birdie told me
  • Night owl
  • Put a bug in his ear
  • Bigger fish to fry
  • Ants in your pants
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Making a mountain out of a molehill
  • Shooting the breeze

It might be fun to ask your children/grandchildren if they know the meanings of these idioms.

Can you add to our list? Remember, the idioms should somehow relate to camping or the great outdoors.

Last week’s Around the Campfire:

##RVT1080

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Darla
2 months ago

When I was a small child my mom took me and my sister to church. If we were running late she would say, “we’re going to have to park in the boondocks. “ It was a long time before I realized that “the boondocks” referred to more places than just the back of the parking lot of our church. 🙂

Bill B
2 months ago

I insist we go Dutch!

Spike
2 months ago

One of my hobbies is traditional muzzleloading firearms…think Dan’l Boone or Davy Crockett flintlock guns from before the founding of our country to the Civil War period. Many of us still shoot and hunt with these guns of old.

There are numerous idioms that derive from these guns. Here are three:

“Flash in the pan” is used today to describe something that ends quickly. That came from when the small amount of powder in the pan of a flintlock that is supposed to ignite the main charge in the barrel simply burns in a quick “poof” but doesn’t ignite the barrel charge.

“Loaded for bear” is used today to describe someone preparing for an argument or tackling something difficult. Originally it was a large charge in a muzzleloader (extra powder and/or projectiles) for hunting bears.

“Lock, Stock, and barrel” today meaning “all encompassing.” Those are three main components of a muzzleloader!

Last edited 2 months ago by Spike
Wolfe
2 months ago
Reply to  Spike

“Going off half-cocked” – traditional guns were literally carried half cocked — not hammer down on the firing pin where a bump could set them off, nor full-cocked where the hammer had enough energy to fire. But, sometimes that notch would slip, and the hammer had enough energy, and indeed it went off, half cocked. Most modern guns have more interlock safeties.

“Smoking gun” – a sign of which candidate did something.

“Jumping the gun” – starting something before the signal/proper time

“A bird in hand is worth two in the bush” — like “counting your birds before they hatch”

JT1126
2 months ago

Just got an email that said that Black Friday sales are…
Down To The Wire

JT1126
2 months ago

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
To chicken out
Don’t beat a dead horse
Quit horsing around
Living high on the hog
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

HAROLD COFFIELD
2 months ago

That dog won’t hunt.

I don’t have a dog in that fight.

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