Gladly; willingly; freely;– used in familiar speech in the phrase, I had as lief to go as not. Had, in this phrase, is probably a corruption of would. — Webster, 1882
She said that nobody liked a nicely pointed moral better than she did, only she would just as lief it should not be pointed at her! — The Friend, The Society of Friends, 1867
A phrase seldom heard today, “I’d just as lief….” was commonly used in every-day conversations at the time of Farmer Boy. It came from the Anglo Saxon leaf, meaning dear or beloved or pleasing, yet it eventually came to mean willing. In some cases, the opposite of lief was loth. Lieve was used interchangeably with lief.
Today, the expression “just as soon” is often used in sentences where Almanzo Wilder might have said “just as lief.” Although found in the published Farmer Boy, “just as lief” is not found used in the existing manuscript, nor was the story about Almanzo’s cousin daring him to ask his father for money, or anything about Almanzo buying and caring for the pig, Lucy.
Examples of “just as lief” found in literature. The following are passages from various books; they all include Almanzo’s “just as lief.” The first is from the Independent Fifth Reader by J. Madison Watson (1876), pages 280-282, in an elocution lesson titled “Sir Lucius and Bob Acres,” written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The Independent Fifth Reader is mentioned in The Long Winter as being a book owned and used by the Ingallses. Perhaps Laura and Mary memorized this exchange between Acres, a principal in a duel, and Sir Lucius, his second:
Acres: “Look’ee, Sir Lucius! I’d just as lief be shot in an awkward posture as a genteel one; so, by my valor! I will stand edgeways.” — Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals (1846)
“I’d just as lief be tied up as not–I like to play dog;” and Nan put on a don’t-care face, and began to growl and grovel on the floor. — Louisa May Alcott, Little Men (1871)
“…I think no more of a red-skin’s scalp than I do a pair of wolf’s ears; and would just as lief finger money for the one as for the other…” — James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer
Would he take a message? Just as lief as not; had nothing else to do; would carry it in no time. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “American Civilization,” in Works (1862)
“…I guess you’ll get along with him, and the baby isn’t quite as cross as he was yesterday. You’d just as lief go in the afternoon, I suppose?” — Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Men, Women, and Ghost (1873)
He thought you wanted to go round kind of on a lark; and that pony, for mere devilment, had just as lief go a-courting as not. — Bret Harte, The Overland Monthly (1869)
“I’d just as lief pick his apples for him if father will let me. I’ll ask him, and if he says yes, I’ll be around there tomorrow before school.” — D.S. Erickson, Good Measure (1869)
lief (FB 16), “I’d just as lief ask him if I wanted to.”