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I have just learnt an idiom Gone to Texas which "was a phrase used by Americans immigrating to Texas in the 19th century often to escape debt". I like it.

But is this idiom still used? Will native speakers understand me? And can it be used ironically to describe people avoiding responsibility by means of escape?

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    I have lived on the west coast (Washington for over 50 yrs, California for 11). Never heard it. Wouldn't have guessed what it means if you hadn't told me. Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 8:40
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    You can only use it if you lost all your money in the panic of 1819.
    – rabbit
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 8:47
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    I'm a native speaker - of British English. I wouldn't have guessed its meaning and IMO neither would any native speaker outside the USA. Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 8:56
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    @WS2 Is it used in it's original meaning only? Could it be used ironically when talking about people running away from responsibility?
    – olegst
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 10:48
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    Possibly worth mentioning that "Gone to Texas" is also the name of the book which was filmed as "The Outlaw Josey Wales" - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Outlaw_Josey_Wales
    – user11752
    Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 14:07

3 Answers 3

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"An Aside on the Process of Idiom Formation," in Rice University Studies, volume 66, issues 1–2 (1980) [combined snippets] has this discussion of "gone to Texas":

1. The creation of a metaphor

Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee were, during the 1820s, a jumping-off place for emigrants from the United States to the Mexican province of Texas. In that region, somebody often left town on his way to Texas, and when his absence was questioned, he was said to have gone to Texas. The expression became so frequent that it was even abbreviated (orally) to GTT.

Most of the emigrants were pioneers looking for a new start. This description fits William Barret Travis and Davy Crockett. Travis saw Texas as a place where a young man with nerve might start close to the top, in his case as commander of the garrison at the Alamo. Crockett, after pioneering central and western Tennessee and the United States House of Representatives, had time at age fifty for one more fresh start.

Thus, GTT had its literal meaning and a fixed connotatum: 'to pioneer, to make a fresh start.' In short, it had become an expression whose literal and metaphorical interpretations were simultaneously recognized.

2. From metaphor to idiom

Another group of GTT-ers included those who were in trouble because of their politics and resultant involvement in illegal dueling, like James Bowie, and those who were outright criminals. In their case, Texas was attractive for its lack of an extradition treaty with the United States. They also were GTT, but their "fresh start" was for getting away from their pasts, rather than for pioneering. In their case, the use of the expression GTT was purely metaphorical. It was actually a fixed metaphor or sememic idiom.

The following generation's use of GTT shows that it had become a lexemic idiom. The geographical area of GTT increased in scope to include the entire trans-Mississippi west, while the pioneering purpose lost out to the escaping-the-law purpose. By the Civil War, the expression simply meant 'on the run from the law'—a lexemic idiom just like kick the bucket.

Sadly, at lest to a romantic, this idiom is now lost, mainly because of our loss of the frontier. The process of idiom formation, however, continues.

As a native Texan, I can confirm that the idiom "gone to Texas" is virtually unknown in the Lone Star State. It would be interesting to know whether it persists (with a generally pejorative flavor) in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

One possibly related term that remains current (in California, anyway) is "gone [or went] south." Here is a discussion of that phrase in Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, second edition (2006):

go south Fail, go bankrupt, decline. This colloquialism probably alludes to two-dimensional maps where north is up (at the top) and south is down. Another theory is that in some Native Americans' (Sioux) belief system the term means "to die." From the first half of the twentieth century on, however, it became particularly common among business writers. ...

Barbara Kipfer & Robert Chapman, Dictionary of American Slang, fourth edition (2007) offers a reading of "go south" that brings the meaning considerably closer to that of "go to Texas" than Ammer does:

go south (also head south, take a turn south) v phr 1 To disappear; fail by or as if by vanishing [example omitted] (1940s+) 2 To abscond with money, loot, etc [example omitted] (1925+) 3 To cheat, esp to cheat at cards [example omitted] (1950+ Underworld) 4 To lessen; diminish [example omitted] (1980s+) {probably fr the notion of disappearing south of the border, to Texas or to the Mexican border, to escape legal pursuit and responsibility; probably reinforced by the widespread Native American belief that the soul after death journeys to the south, attested in American Colonial writing fr the mid-1700s; GTT, "Gone to Texas, absconded," is found by 1839}

So if you want to convey the sense of leaving town to escape creditors, domestic entanglements, or John Q. Law, you might do better with "gone south" than with GTT.

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Sven Yargs hit "Gone South" in all directions. Anyone suggesting it meant a simple decline is missing the connection to THE SOUTH in previous centuries. In the early 1800's all of the 'civilized' Americans lived in the North, particularly Pennsylvania and the eastern seaboard. Going SOUTH was like our going to the islands off the bottom of Africa, with no hope of ever seeing home again. And in the later 1800's, the phrase 'gone south' was crossing over into the more depressing state where you were leaving and didn't like it, but had no choice even though you might be wishing for an alternative opportunity from...having to live in Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas with - the Negroes, the heat, the post Civil War poverty, the lifestyle of defeat. If you were having to move to the South, you were being forced into it. Now, in the 20th Century, as you saw quite properly in the reference to a Robert B Parker novel (Marriage has gone south..) the current meaning is lighter. When something has gone south, it means fallen apart, split up, gotten rotten/nasty, broke, can't be fixed, give it up. As in "Our plans went south."

In contrast, people left the "Gone To Texas" message for friends and family because they were going to Texas. They were starving, had been frightened away, sickness had contaminated their property, the land had flooded and couldn't be sold, whatever....they were going where the sun was shining, the Mexicans were nothing like the Indians, there was water and flat land for farming and raising herds. It sounded like Paradise for someone with initiative and no other opportunity in hand. It was running away, but with hope. It was much like the helplessness of Okies and people from all over the central USA during the Dust Bowl days as they flooded the roads to California. GTT was sad/hopeful, but not a deadly pronouncement. Good work Yargs.

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That is an awfully old expression and I don't think it would be understood by modern speakers. For the sense of avoiding responsibility by escape, maybe you could invoke draft dodging?

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  • Draft dodging could be politically loaded and it's not really a generic idiom. I wouldn't use it in this context.
    – Eric
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 12:05
  • @Eric - Of course, "failed to keep a stiff upper lip" is much less "loaded".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 2:22

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