Rag off the bush, to take the

They shoot azaleas, don’t they?

Dear Word Detective:  I am a little confused as to the meaning of the expression “take the rag off the bush.”  It seems like it means “a prayer is answered” or “one that never got answered” or, in some contexts, it means the same as “if that don’t beat all.”  The last one seems to fit best.  What is the most correct? — Darb.

That’s an interesting question, and by “interesting” I mean “infuriating.”  Seriously, this one gave me a headache.  But after spending an entire evening grappling with this phrase, I think I finally have it pinned to the mat.  So fasten your seat belts, kids, because it’s going to get a bit complicated as we attempt to unscrew the inscrutable “take the rag off the bush.”

The literal answer to your question is the easy part.  To “take the rag off the bush” means  “to excel, to be the best or most triumphantly successful.”  Used in an ironic sense, it means “to be breathtakingly outrageous” or, in the current vernacular, “to take the cake” (“You do take the rag off the bush, boy,” R. Coover, 1977).  It can also mean “to put an end to an argument or contest through overwhelming victory.”  This is actually the sense in which the phrase is used in one of its earliest appearances in print, in 1810 (“This ‘takes the rag off the bush’ so completely, that we suppose we shall hear no more … about the Chesapeake business.”)  “To take the rag off the bush” is definitely of US origin, and was probably first used in the 18th century.

That US origin is important, because if you go looking for the origin of “take the rag off the bush” on the internet, you’ll find rather long and involved explanations that trace the phrase to Ireland or Scotland and a folk tradition of tying rags to bushes near religious shrines.  It is said, for instance, that at a shrine to Saint Patrick in Ireland emigrants bound for America in the 18th and 19th centuries tied bits of cloth to a nearby bush to solicit Saint Patrick’s favor in their journey and future endeavors.  If the cloth disappeared from the bush soon after the person set sail, it meant that good fortune had been granted (or, according to other accounts, that disaster had struck).

This story about rags and bushes is, in itself, true.  There is a long tradition in Celtic (and other) cultures of “rag bushes,” often located at religious shrines or wells known for their healing powers, and supplicants do indeed tie bits of cloth to these bushes or trees to solicit aid or health. At medicinal wells and springs, for instance, it is said that as the “rag” weathers away, the affliction itself will fade.

But these “rag bushes” are almost certainly not the source of “take the rag off the bush.”  For a far more likely source, we turn to the American frontier and its nearly omnipresent guns.  It was common in the 18th and 19th centuries to hold impromptu shooting matches where the target was simply a rag hung on a bush in the distance.  A good shot would hit the rag, making it visibly jump.  A great shot would literally “take the rag off the bush,” putting an end to at least that round of the contest with an overwhelming success.

Making this sort of shooting match the likely source of “take the rag off the bush” is the fact that it fits perfectly with “triumphant success” sense of the earliest examples we have of the phrase in print.  One of these examples, from 1843, specifically refers to a shooting match, and none of them mention religious shrines.  There is, on the other hand, no scenario I can imagine involving “rag bushes” that would produce the “stunning triumph” or “take the cake” meanings of “take the rag off the bush.”   Finally, although the phrase has been widely used in the US for at least two centuries, it is virtually unknown outside the US.

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