The curious, and somewhat archaic expression acknowledge the corn, which was popular in the nineteenth century seems to mean admitting to a crime. Particularly, it means admitting to part of the crime, but outright denying involvement in the rest of the crime. Author Robert Hendrickson suggest that it is a modern version of “copping a plea.” 1 2 Another interpretation is acknowledging part of a debt, but denying the rest of the debt. Either way, it is admitting or pleading guilty to a more minor charge to avoid being charged with a much more serious one. There are at least three origin stores for this expressions that I’ve managed to find.
The Horse and Corn Thief
Hendrickson’s version, a popular one, suggests that the expression derives from a court case of the 1800s, in which a man accused to stealing four horse and a large supply of corn is taken to trial. Now, it helps to understand that at this time, horse thievery was an extremely serious crime in most all of America. It was punishable by death. So, why did he steal horse AND corn? The corn was for feeding the horses. In court, the man arose and declared “I acknowledge the corn!”
The Gambler, the Potatoes, and the Corn
In another story, a man from “the upper country” decides to try his fortune down in New Orleans. He got together two flatboats and loaded one with potatoes and the other with corn, and floated on down the river to Louisiana.
Once he arrived in New Orleans, he went to a gambling house and lost all his money. When his funds dried up, he bet the potatoes and corn. He lost them. too. He went back to his flatboats, and found that his misfortune was even worse. The flatboat of corn had sunk to the bottom of the river. He went to sleep, defected and sorrowful.
He was shaken awake the next morning. It was the fellow who had won the produce, come to demand payment. Rubbing his eyes and bestirring himself (I don’t really talk like that), he looks at the man and says, “Stranger, I acknowledge the corn — take em; but the potatoes you can’t have, by thunder!
Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Haystacks, and Corn
The last claimed origin I was able to find for acknowledge the corn involves a meeting of Congress. A “Mr. Stewart,” who was a congressman, gave a speech and said that Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana sent their haystacks, cornfields, and fodder to New York and Philadelphia for sale. Mr. Wickliffe from Kentucky, presumably another congressman, objected to this statement, saying it was not true.
“Well, what do you send, then? said Stewart. “Why, horses, mules, cattle, and hogs,” answered Wickliffe.
“What makes your horses, mules, cattle, and hogs? You feed $100 of hay to a horse. You just ride to market on top of your haystack. What about your cattle? You make one of them carry $50 worth of hay or grass to the Eastern market. How much corn does it take at three-three cents a bushel, to fatten a hog?”
“About thirty bushels,” answered Mr. Wickliffe.
“Then, you put thirty bushels into the shape of a hog and make to walk to the Eastern market.”
At that, Wickliffe jumps to his feet and proclaims “Mr. Speaker, I acknowledge the corn.”
- Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms. New York: Facts on File, 2000.
- Hendrickson, Robert. Talking Turkey: A Food Lover’s Guide to the Origins of Culinary Words and Phrases. New York: Skyhorse, 2014.