gay cowboys

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Dec 23 15:28:01 UTC 2005

the movie Brokeback Mountain has already been mentioned here in
connection with the top/bottom polarity; back on 19 december, Ron
Butters commented:

I haven't seem the cowboy movie that seems to have created so much
controversy (it is called something like "Bareback Mountain") but it
will be interesting to see what sort of view of psychology is
projected onto those cowboys.

there's been a lot of discussion on this point in the media and other
places, including the lgbt newsgroup soc.motss.  i'll summarize some
of this material -- which is more or less about whether the two men
are "gay" -- eventually here, but first i want to bring up the
question of whether they are "cowboys", which Robert Coren posed on
soc.motss yesterday.  it came up first in an interview with Annie
Proulx, the author of the short story on which the movie is based:

>  [Interviewed in a Wyoming newspaper] "Excuse me," said Ms.
> Proulx, "but it is _not_ a story about 'two cowboys'. It is a
> story about two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids in
>  1963 who left home and find themselves in a personal sexual
> situation they did not expect, understand nor can manage."

[note material for students of parallelism and negation.]

i was surprised about her protest at first, but now it occurs to me
that part of what she's objecting to is the word "cowboy", which she
replaces by "ranch kid".  but that's a description of their
upbringing (on ranches), not their occupation the summer they became
lovers.  perhaps "ranch hand" might have done, but they are in fact
doing herding out on the range (on Brokeback Mountain), not working
on the ranch itself.

the problem is that what they're herding is *sheep*.  coren said:

> ... Everybody talks about these guys as "cowboys", which is a word
> that has a lot of
> connotations and resonances in American culture. It occurred to me
> that another word that, in its literal sense, is a more accurate
> description of what the guys are doing on Brokeback Mountain, has a
> whole different set of connotations and resonances; how would the
> discourse be different if the shortcut designation for these guys
> was "gay shepherds"?

to which i replied:

giggle.  but the issue about "cowboy" is interesting.  the
dictionaries i have to hand all make the connection to cattle
explicit, but i believe that in the world these guys come from,
"cowboy" is a cover term for ranch workers, rodeo riders, and herders
in general.  it might be that it covers only jobs done at least in
part on horseback...   i'll see if anyone on ADS-L has some insight
into this.

[ok, ADS-Lers: anyone have any evidence of this extended sense of

the image i get for "shepherd" *never* has the herders on horseback,
but that just might be me.  now i'm wondering how the basque
shepherds of nevada go about their job.

[anyone know the answer to this question?]

the perfect parallel to "cowboy" would be "sheepboy".  and it's
attested, but is obviously not common or current; from OED2:

1842 S. C. HALL Ireland II. 81 The *sheep-boy saw him go in. 1859
MEREDITH R. Feverel xix, Pipe, happy sheep-boy, Love!

"sheep(-)boy" sounds irretrievably silly, i'm afraid.  "sheepherder"
would be transparent and serviceable and would avoid the religious or
somewhat cutesy connotations of "shepherd".

[now that i think about it, i have the impression that the basque
keepers of sheep are more often referred to as "sheepherders" rather
than "shepherds".  but certainly not as "cowboys".]

arnold (zwicky at

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