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shameless pleading





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.

34 comments to Rag off the bush, to take the

  • jl

    well that was next to no help at all. You could simply have said that shooting the rag off the bush results in a done deal – winner done proved himself. Hemmmf.

    • Lestrad

      It was a great deal of help to me. It gave a credible explanation for the origin of the expression, and in doing so covered transatlantic ground and provided me with knowledge I did not have and can now meld with knowledge I do have.

      Your comment, on the other hand, was of no help whatsoever.

  • …as heard said in the 1991 movie “doc hollywood” by woody harrelson’s character, hank:
    ‘well…don’t that take the rag off the bush.’

  • Lucy

    My grandmother used to say this and I was told that it indicates a commotion. As in a bug gust of wind or quick storm that literally takes ” the rag off the bush” where they were hanging to dry.

  • Just came across your site. There are some colorful expressions from earlier years.These may amuse you:
    1. “Comes a time when every man has to clean his own outhouse.” This refers to some distasteful task a man would rather have someone else do but can find no takers.
    2 “He lost his nut.” or “He got his nut back.” In bygone days wagon wheel nuts were individually carved out. Each wheel had it’s particular nut. Wheel nuts were often used as collateral for a debt. Until you got your nut back your wagon was useless.
    3. “Well, I suppose he is an okay guy but he relieves himself too close to the house.” This can have several amgigious meanings but implies the man has a few faults.
    Outhouses could be many yards from a dwellinge. Some men (it seemed to be more of a male thing) did not bother to make the full trip. This saying faded away when indoor plunbing came into vogue.
    The quote may indicate a man will leave a task before it is properly completed, he is lazy, or unreliable.

  • […] Southern idiom tear the rag off the bush has been used when scandalous relationships are revealed, but it’s also applicable to […]

  • When a tree or shrub is brought from the nursery, the roots with some earth are contained within burlap. I’ve always thought that taking “the rag off the bush” immediately prior to completing the planting led to a meaning of readiness to move forward with the business at hand. Obviously the ACTUAL origin seems yet to be discovered.

    • Lestrad

      With all due respect, your suggestion is less credible. And in the field of etymology, credibility is often the only criterion.

  • Connie Walls

    And yet another explanation … my mother told me that in the South at cotton picking time, one would hang a rag on a bush to signal where the next day’s picking should begin. It was an outrage if someone “tore the rag off’n the bush” because it disrupted the complete and orderly harvesting of the cotton. That’s my folks’ etymology anyhow.

  • Caroline

    My aunt would say, ‘There’s a rag for every bush’. She used this saying when referring to the possibility of everyone finding the right someone to marry. I would like to know the origin of this phrasing coming into use.

  • Joseph Yates

    An elderly and colorful neughbor lady from Texas used that expression “they were really tearin’ the rag off the bush” to mean they were creating quite a commotion…she pretty much spoke in Southern idiom, and it was always fun to listen.

    • Sanford

      Interesting in that the lady from TX presented just the opposite meaning of taking a nap? I had an idea, probably erroneous, that bushes had been covered for some reason such as preventing frostbite, freezing or protecting berries from birds, and after this chore was done a nap was earned. That could be a logical conclusion?

  • Libby Stone

    A large part of my family was from the south and I still use this expression. It means someone has finally done the most stupid or outrageous thing ever.

    Tearing the rag off the bush is also not a delicate expression. Women, before sanitary napkins were invented, used to put their menstrual cloths on the bushes to dry after the washed them.

    I am close to 70 and my relatives who frequently used this expression were born from 1880 to about 1920.

  • […] found two popular meanings, or I should say ways the expression is used. Nothing is every simple. From Word Detective: To “take the rag off the bush” means “to excel, to be the best or most triumphantly […]

  • JohnT

    I was a bit surprised that I didn’t find reference to DeBeck’s Snuffy Smith comic character since one of Snuffy’s frequent sayings was, “Now don’t that take the rag off’en the bush.” In the context used it agreed with–as I understood it back then–another Southern definition which suggested amazement, “Now don’t that take all.”

  • DougR

    I’m with Libby on this. My dad used that expression a lot–he was born in 1909–but lived in Wyoming and Wisconsin mostly; I’m guessing he might have heard it from one of his grandparents in Wyoming. To the best of my recollection he used it to indicate some unforeseen complication that derails your plans, although I think he also used it in the “If that don’t beat all…” context too.

    Thanks for the blog, TWD. That phrase popped into my head and it occurred to me to google it…and here you are!

  • Celtic lady

    My great granny was from Ireland – she used the phrase often, and it was always used in context of “well, doesn’t that beat all.” She said her mother used it often as well, so it has extensive history in my family. She never did indicate how it came to be a phrase, other than she remembered as a little girl her brothers tying rags to bushes and trying to hit them with stones in slingshots.

  • Stacy Sparagna

    My Skotch-Irish parents, grandparents and great grandparents used the expression ‘taking the rag off the bush’ when adults/children were misbehaving. I’m guessing it was taken out of its original context and misused but I remember it was a very common saying in our household. My family is from South Texas (San Antonio area).

  • Shea

    Fascinating! I’ve only heard this expression once, on television, but I never forgot it because it cracked me up. I love the history behind it – great job!

  • Barbara Owens

    My mother was from Mississippi, her family was from Ireland and they used the term to imply a much stronger version of “don’t that beat it all”.

  • David Musselman Carter

    The most recent Super Bowl 51 ending certainly is a prime example of this American phrase, “don’t that just take the rag off the bush.” Stunning triumph most certainly applies. The movie, Doc Hollywood,starring MichaelJ.FOX, a classic in 1998, had this little used phrase. I thought it intriguing enough to pursue.

  • Martha Wharton

    In my experience with this phrase, it’s meaning is closer to gilding the lily. My mother would say “don’t take the rag off the bush” in response to something outrageous or overdone or greedy behavior. Like the reading you’ve offered it is a response to some type of excess, but the excess is not necessarily positive. It’s an ostentatious excess.

  • bobgru

    would these practices relate to “tie a yellow ribbon ’round the old oak tree”?

  • Tony LaRosa

    Seems no one mentioned it’s line in Lil Abner..Dogpatch ain’t no rag offa the bush…makes no sense there…maybe someone else can figure out what Al Capp meant.

  • It was used in a early 1960s episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies”, the one called “The Boarder Stays”. I could not deduce the meaning.


  • Lisa

    My grandmother used that expression all the time, she was born in 1920 and was from English descent and let me add, one tough cookie. My family suggested the meaning was along the lines with Libby’s explanation. My entire family is from Philadelphia, in contrast to many hearing it from the south.

  • cfitzs05

    Clothes were traditionally dried on bushes, prior to clothes lines. Clothes thieves would steal clothes from bushes while the owners were swimming in rivers. People would wash their outer garments and hang them out and swim in their drawers. I think there is also a potential for it to mean the ultimate in an extremely aggravating act, much as take the cake does.

  • Kenneth

    My grandpa said it’s when you sh*t in the woods and had your tp or rag hung on a bush

  • My grandmother would say “Don’t tear the rag off the bush” when we were getting a bit crazy and headed outdoors to play.

  • Ray

    I’ve used this comment most of my adult life. Can’t remember exactly where I heard it first. I just used it to define an unusual situation we saw on TV. My wife said, “What does that mean?!” I tried to explain that it was similar to “That takes the cake.” I decided to google the phrase and found this site. I had no idea that it could be used in all these other situations.

  • Francie

    My dad flew B-29s in the South Pacific during WWII. Most planes had a name and “Girlie” picture painted on the plane…just to make things interesting to 50,000 young men fighting a war thousands of miles from home. While going through some of his letters home during that time, we found an official typed order from the Colonel stating all pictures must be removed from the planes. The “higher ups” thought the B-29s were too classy for the pictures. My dad hand wrote on the order, “That just about takes the rag off the bush.” I can assure you, he was not pleased, so I’m going with the definition about something being disgusting or “doesn’t that just take the cake.” Thanks to all for the above article and comments!

  • Pat Mason

    I use that phrase often only I say , “the rag is on the bush” meaning there is trouble or I’m late or what ever just happened is not good. It makes people laugh but they get it. I’ve said that all my adult life.

  • James M. Shelby

    To take the rag off the bush I thought meant to wipe your butt.

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