Keep an ear to the ground

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Keep an ear to the ground is an idiom that came into use in the 1800s, though there was a rise in usage during the mid-twentieth century for a very interesting reason. We will examine the meaning of the phrase keep an ear to the ground, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

Keep an ear to the ground means to pay attention to circumstances that are approaching, to be aware of what is going on around you, particularly current events, trends or gossip. Someone who keeps an ear to the ground is in the know, and well informed. The idiomatic expression keep an ear to the ground, like many idioms, has its roots in a literal meaning of the phrase.  Expressions like wash one’s hands of a situation, don’t shoot the messenger, dime a dozen and house of cards all began with a literal meaning. Other idioms such as raining cats and dogs, curiosity killed the cat and kick the bucket do not seem to have a literal origin. The phrase keep an ear to the ground comes from the practice, particularly in the American West, of putting one’s ear to the ground to listen for the rumble of hooves. Vibrations from galloping horses or buffalo traveled long distances in the wide, uninhabited spaces of the American West. American Indians are credited with teaching this skill to cowboys, but it was probably a well-known skill to many cultures, including Arabic and Spanish cultures.

Keep an ear to the ground was first used in an idiomatic sense in American English in the late 1800s, one of many expressions, words and phrases that probably started out as a dialect term. As horseback travel gave way to trains and later automobiles, the term keep an ear to the ground became less familiar to the average person and less understood. The phrase might even have disappeared if it weren’t for motion pictures. The genre of the Western became popular in the mid-twentieth century, and Hollywood called on stock phrases and cliched situations in order to tell stories of a past way of life. While far from an authoritative documentation of the Old West, writers and directors of Western movies did use specialized terminology, slang, locution and symbols characteristic of the historical period, including the ear-to-the-ground trope. Phrases related to the idiom keep an ear to the ground are keeps an ear to the ground, kept an ear to the ground, keeping an ear to the ground.


It follows that the imperative is to watch, to keep an ear to the ground, so that the goal of harmoniously “guiding public opinion” becomes a reality. (The South China Morning Post)

Lovingly compiled and artisanly curated by a small group with widespread sources, who keep an ear to the ground and will let you know what chatter is an omen and what’s just for the birds. (The Tuscon Sentinel)

He was back in Huddersfield last weekend where he held a fundraiser at Med One for the Jo Cox Foundation, spoke to students at two schools and met Labour Party members to “keep my ear to the ground”. (The Huddlesfield Daily Examiner)

The 25-year-old, enjoying his first full year in the role, has kept his ear to the ground on all things Airdrieonians and been the most reliable source of information for fans desperate to keep up-to-date with the continual off-field drama at the club. (The Scottish Daily Record)