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shameless pleading

Barnstorming

You’d be amazed, by the way, how much more productive you become simply by removing the batteries from the remote control.

Dear Word Detective:  With the latest Sarah Palin book, the term “barnstorming” has come up in the media more than once.  It got me to thinking about the phrase, which, when you stop to think about it, doesn’t make much sense.  I believe the phrase refers to stunt piloting in the early age of aviation — but why?  And even if it had something to do with flying through, over, under or around barns, how is it “storming”?  I know there’s some military terminology about “storming the walls” and the like, but it would make more sense if it were “swarming the walls.”  At least as I understand the phrase.  Did the “storming” part of these phrases evolve from “swarming.”  Or is it something else?  Could you make some sense of this? — Barney Johnson.

Sarah who?  Y’know, your question reminded me of how much saner I’ve felt ever since I completely stopped watching TV news last year, a move I heartily recommend.  I actually felt a little shiver of glee the other day when I realized that I’ve never heard Levi Johnson’s Johnston’s voice.  Seriously, the guy may sound like Elmer Fudd and I’d never know it.  I figure that one bit of blessed ignorance alone has saved me four or five million brain cells.

“Barnstorming” is indeed a strange word, one of those words that we see or hear so frequently that we rarely realize just how weird they really are.  A word such as “barnstorm” is especially vexing because the constituent parts are simple words in their own right, yet the combination doesn’t really make sense.  Who would want to “storm” a barn (aside from the Bovine Liberation Front, of course)?

An examination of the history of “barnstorming” clears things up a bit, at least as to the “barn” part.  The term “barnstorming” first appeared in the early 19th century, applied to theatrical troupes that toured in rural areas, often mounting their shows in, you guessed it, rented barns.  Such tours were commonly conducted in the summer, and often featured actors who would be engaged in established urban theaters during the rest of the year (“Miss Helen Bancroft, who recently played in this city, was announced as with a barn-storming company,” 1883).

The “storm” in “barnstorming” is a bit more difficult to untangle.  “Storm” as a verb means, logically, to act like a storm, either literally (rain, wind, etc.) or figuratively (to rage, rail, menace or attack).  This figurative use led to the military sense of “to storm” meaning “to attack and attempt to take a fortified position,” as well as more generally meaning “to capture or take over” (“A hundred swords Will storm his heart, Love’s feverous citadel,” Keats, 1820).  The use of “storm” in “barnstorm” is apparently a playful, slightly sardonic use of the term, referring to the need of the troupe to “conquer” one barn full of bumpkins after another in the course of their tour.  (By the way, my ownership of a tractor entitles me to use the word “bumpkin.”)

“Barnstorm” was so evocative of a rapid march through the boondocks that the term was quickly adopted to describe the tours mounted by politicians campaigning in the sticks in the late 1880s, who often held town meetings in those same barns.  The use of “barnstorming” in reference to traveling air shows dates to the 1920s, but the practice had absolutely nothing to do with barns.  Pilots flew from town to town, performing acrobatic maneuvers for paying audiences, and then flying on to another town, often later that same day.  It was this incessant “puddle-jumping” routine that, by analogy to those peripatetic acting troupes, gave these pilots the name “barnstormers.”

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