Au That’s My Claim!

Gold Slang Lives on in the English Language.

Language tossed around by gold miners and prospectors over a century ago is still with us.

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The Language of Gold Miners in Everyday Speech

Gold mining vernacular is still with us. Much of gold slang used today comes from the mid-nineteeth century when gold “strikes” were discovered in the western United States. The people involved in the discovery and mining of gold developed their own ways of expressing themselves. Many of these expressions are used today.

Gold references are perhaps exceeded only by nautical references that still pepper the English language. Gold mining and nautical lingo have remained in the english lexicon long after the vast majority of those involved in earning their livings from the gold mines or sea have hung up their picks or docked their boats.

When someone joins an organization we use nautical language: “glad to have you on board.” Or when the economy hits a snag we may say it is “facing headwinds”.

Top Ten Gold Mining Inspired Phrases Still Used Today

Gold and gold mining have added some of their distinct lingo to the English lexicon. Here are some of them:

1. Pan Out

Definition: turn out.

One method of prospecting for gold is using a perforated metal pan to sift sedminent and capture gold. The process of using a pan to find gold is called gold panning. For many this type of gold prospecting didn’t pan out.

Today, we may console a dejected friend who had high hopes for a project that failed by telling them “sorry it didn’t ‘pan out’ for you.”


The act of panning for gold using a pan.

2. Stake a Claim

This term was used to describe the act of drawing the boundaries with wooden stakes around the area purchased by a “49er” that gave him the right to mine/prospect for gold there. A claim that was properly staked out let “Johnny Come Latelies” know that they had better seek “pay dirt” elsewhere.

Today, we use the term “stake a claim” to mean the assertion of ownership over something of pecuniary value. Staking a claim could take the form of filing a patent or just verbally announcing the right to an object of value. “I am staking my claim on blockchain technology.”

3. Gold Mine

Definition: a place where gold is dug from the ground.

Today, we use the term “gold mine” to mean not just a place where gold is dug from the ground, but also any place that makes a lot of money. “That restaurant is a ‘gold mine’, it is always packed”.

a gold mine

Literally, a gold mine.

4. Gold Rush

Definition: a rush to newly discovered goldfields in pursuit of riches

Today, we use the term “gold rush” to also mean the unbridled passionate pursuit in search of riches from some newly discovered source of potential wealth. There was a dotcom “gold rush” in the early 2000’s.

5. Paydirt

Definition:literally dirt that pays.

When a gold miner found gold in the ground where he had “staked his claim” he had “struck pay dirt”.

Today, we use the term “paydirt” to mean any object, project or idea from which money can be made. “Twitter struck ‘paydirt’ when it hit upon the idea of mass instant messaging.”


Modern day fiat pay dirt

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6. All that glitters is not gold.

While the concept of shiny things not necessarily equating value precedes gold mining, the expression gained currency among gold miners and prospectors especially when describing the irrational exuberance of “johnny come latelies” when they these hapless fellows thought they had “struck gold” when indeed all they had found was worthless fool’s gold.

Today, we say “all that glitters in not gold” to describe opportunities that seem too good to be true.

7. Johnny Come Lately

Definition: a late or recent arrival.

According to Merrium Webster’s Dictionary this term first came into existence in 1839 – just ten years before the California Gold Rush of 1849. Mining camps of the mid- 19th century were constantly receiving new arrivals or “Johnny Come Latlies” who had “gone west” to “strike it rich”. For many Johnny Come Latelies the journey didn’t ‘pan out” and they returned east penniless.

Today, we say someone new to an endeavor is a “Johnny Come Lately”.

8. Gold Fever

Someone was said to have “gold fever” when they were delirious at the prospect of joining the “gold rush” and heading west to “stake a claim”.

Today, we say someone has gold fever when they catch an obsession to make a lot of money. “He’s caught ‘gold fever’.” Gold Fever is also a long running television series on the Outdoor Channel about prospecting for gold.

sick golden retriever

Gratuitous photo of golden retreiver with ‘fever’.


9. Strike gold/strike it rich/ (see also hit “pay dirt”)

When a miner found gold with his mining equipment, he was said to “strike gold” which meant he had “struck it rich”.

Today, we use the term “strike it rich” to describe one who has become rich suddenly through any means irrespective of the use of gold mining implement. “He ‘struck it rich’ when he wont the lottery.”

10. 49ers

The term “49ers” was used to describe the group of young men who headed west in 1849 soon after gold was discovered in California.

Today, The San Francisco 49ers are an American football team named after those who sought “pay dirt” in the “gold rush” of 1849.

How Gold Didn’t Get its Symbol on the Periodic Table of Elements

There is an apocryphal tale that describes how gold became “Au” on the periodic table of elements during the ‘gold rush’ era of the mid nineteen century.

As “Johnny Come Latelies” swarmed the mining districts in the western United State in the mid 19th century, many arrived to “stake their claims” but found nearly all the best gold mines had been taken. Undetered, these intrepid 49ers would begin mining vacant staked out claims. Inevitably, the owners of the claims would return, catch the Johnny Come Lateliesin the act and yell “Hey YOU that’s my claim”. Constant cries of “AU” around mines to ward off squatting miners led to the beleif that there was a substance “AU” in the mines, which led to the naming of gold on the periodic table as “AU”.

The real reason gold’s symbol is Au is that it is short of the Latin word for gold, ‘aurum’.

Images: CanStockPhoto

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