What Is Pay Dirt?

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
2-minute read

Have you ever heard the expression to hit pay dirt?

It means to make a valuable discovery or a sudden fortune.

But what is pay dirt? And how do you hit it? 

Let’s find out.

Pay dirt is a mining term. It refers to dirt that has enough ore in it to be worth extracting. Could be iron ore; could be gold ore. Either way, you wouldn’t bother digging it up unless there was a good chance of finding something shiny. 

The term pay dirt appeared in the mid-1800s, during the California Gold Rush. Miners dug into the California soil, sometimes a few feet deep, sometimes up to twenty feet deep, in search of pay dirt. Once they found it, they extracted it—through tunnels and mine shafts, if needed—and started sifting. 

A teacher’s guide from 1885 describes the mining process like this. Pay dirt is poured into “a long wooden trough, through which a constant stream of water runs … the water carries away the clay, sand, gravel, and stones, and leaves the gold in the bottom of the sluice, where it is caught by gravity.”

It's “caught by gravity” indeed. Gold has a high specific gravity. That means it’s denser and therefore heavier than lots of other stuff. In running water, gold will sink and stay put, while other objects float or roll along downstream. 

If a miner’s pay dirt panned out, he would be said to have struck it rich.

Yup. Those are two more phrases born in the Gold Rush. To pan out means to succeed. It alludes to a miner separating gold from gravel in a pan. To strike it rich means to achieve sudden financial success. It refers to finding a rich mineral deposit, perhaps by striking it with a pick-axe.

So, that’s your tidbit for today. If you hit pay dirt or strike it rich, you just got lucky. And if things pan out, they’re going your way.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.


Ammer, Christine. Pan out, pay dirt, strike it rich. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Hill, Mary. Gold: The California Story. University of California Press, 2002.

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Pay dirt. (subscription required, accessed August 10, 2016).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Here's the gold rush story behind the "pay dirt" idiom. #GrammarGirl

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.