Romancing History

Why Do We Say That? Slang from the Mighty Mississippi

Great Steel Bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, MO circa 1870s

Great Steel Bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, MO circa 1870s

The Mississippi River has a vaulted place in American history and legend. The Mississippi is often viewed as a boundary between the eastern, western and southern regions of the Untied States and is frequently used as an identifying landmark, such as “the oldest town west of the Mississippi.” But many people are unaware of the river’s influence on our everyday speech.

flatboat_bargee1500x1212Have you ever barged in to someone and ended up causing a commotion? Well that phrase gets its origins from the flimsy hard to control barges that were commonplace on the Mississippi. At one point, there were so many barges operating on the river, they would bump into or “barge into” one another slowing down river traffic.

Why is someone in trouble over a barrel? If a steamboat passenger went overboard, they were hauled back on deck and laid on their stomach over a barrel. Someone would push on their back applying pressure to their abdomen and forcing any water they had swallowed to expel. So when you’re in trouble, you’re said to be “over a barrel.”

Gorgeous steam-powered Mississippi Riverboat

Gorgeous steam-powered Mississippi Riverboat

Have you ever needed to let off steam? In 1803, Robert Fulton invented the steam engine allowing boats to travel up the Mississippi River for the first time. But these new engines were highly combustible and often exploded injuring and/or killing those on board. Eventually safety valves were added to the boilers allowing steam to escape when they reached capacity preventing the engine from blowing up. So today, when someone “lets of steam”, they are just releasing a little pent up emotion or energy.

raftEven river travel was not without social distinction. Flats or rafts were rectangular, flat-bottomed boats without keels. This meant that they were relatively easy to build, but this simple and affordable design also destined them to be an awkward one-way craft. They were built in various sizes and layouts depending on the load they would carry and the distance to be traveled.  A raft was the smallest, least fancy way to ship goods or travel on the river and a riff was the oar used to steer it. So people of lower social status who traveled this way became known as riffraff.

StacksIn addition to the riffraff, there were also some highfalutin’ folks traveling the Mississippi River. Wealthy patrons often sat on the upper deck near the smoke stacks where they could catch a breeze and get relief from the stifling heat. The high fluted edges of the smoke stacks kept the smoke away from these customers while the lower classes suffered in cramped, windowless quarters below deck. So when someone’s speech or writing is laden with a pompous or pretentious tone, they are said to be “highfalutin’.”

Ever wondered why a cabin on a ship is referred to as a stateroom? In the early days of riverboats rooms weren’t numbered but named after states, “The Alabama” or “The Mississippi,” lending the quarters a more elegant feel for their wealthy patrons. While cabins may be numbered today, the legacy of the stateroom continues on cruise ships all around the world.

The magnificent salon of the Grand Republic Riverboat circa 1876

The magnificent salon of the Grand Republic Riverboat circa 1876

After the civil war, the rapid growth of railroads cut into the profits of steamboats traveling the Mississippi River. In order to keep attracting their wealthy clientele, ships were built bigger with more elegant staterooms. Grand theaters offered live entertainment and casino gambling. So when someone is flamboyant or showy, they are said to be “showboating.”

Just as author Mark Twain immortalized life on the river in his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi, so does the prominence of this great American waterway remain alive in our common vernacular.



Researching History with Author, Sarah Monzon


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  1. You do such a good job with these, Kelly. I always learn something. Keep on researcihin’. By the way, It’s kind of my fantasy to go on one of these Mississippi riverboats. But have you seen what they cost?

    • romancinghistory

      Hi Megan! Thanks for the kind words! I would love to do riverboat trip too but I’ve never checked out the price. It’s not sounding good!

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