The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s rustle up an answer

Q: The other day, I asked my office manager  to order me new business cards. Her answer: “Sure, I’ll rustle up some for you.” So where in the world does “rustle up” come from?

A: The verb “rustle” dates back at least as far as the 14th century, and it may have its roots in the early days of Old English.

It originally meant—and still means—to move about with a rustling sound, or as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “to make a soft, muffled crackling sound when moving.”

The OED says the origin of the word is uncertain, but it’s probably imitative—that is, “rustle” probably imitates the sound it describes.

The dictionary suggests that it may possibly be related to a “small group of very poorly attested Old English words” that refer to making noises: hristan, for example, meant to make a noise, and hrisian meant to shake or rattle.

Over the years, the verb “rustle” took on many different meanings in connection with making noises while moving around. People as well as things noisily rustled “about,” “in,” “through,” “to,” “up,” and so on.

In the 19th century, however, “rustle” took on several colloquial senses in the United States, including the one you’re asking about. Here are the new meanings and their first citations in the OED:

● to stir or rouse oneself into action: “Get up, rouse and rustle about, and get away from these scores” (1835, The Partisan, a novel by William Gilmore Simms).

● to search for food, forage: “Cattle and horses rustled in the neighbouring cane-brake” (1835, The Rambler in North America, a travel book by Charles Joseph Latrobe).

● to acquire, gather, provide something: “He nailed my thumb in his jaws, and rostled up a handful of dirt & throwed it in my eyes” (1844, Spirit of the Times, a weekly newspaper in New York City).

● to move quickly: “ ‘Rustle the things off that table,’ means clear the table in a hurry” (1882, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine).

● to gather people or animals: “I just told Billy … that it wasn’t any use for me to take her through … and he could rustle up some one to finish my drive” (1883, Our Deseret Home, by W. M. Eagan).

● to round up and steal cattle, horses, etc.: “He and Turner … went to Coppinger’s pasture, intending to kill the negro Frank, and ‘rustle’ six head of fat cattle, then in Coppinger’s pasture” (1886, Texas Court of Appeals Reports).

The sense that you’ve asked about (to acquire, gather, provide something) is defined more fully in the OED:

“To acquire or gather, typically as a result of searching or employing effort or initiative, and in response to a particular need; to provide (a person) with something urgently required; to hunt out; (freq. in later use) to put together (a dish or meal). Now usu. with up.”

Now, it’s time for us to take a break and rustle up some grub!

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