Gonzaga's "Brokeback" chant

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Feb 16 12:39:30 UTC 2006

More on the "Brokeback" front... At a basketball game between Gonzaga
University and St. Mary's College, a Gonzaga booster group chanted
"Brokeback! Mountain!" to taunt a St. Mary's player (a photo had
circulated online purporting to show the player kissing another man).
Details here:


A writer using the pen name "Diogenes" wrote the following column for
Catholic World News about the chant, calling it a "lexical
innovation." His silly etymological argument sounds tongue in cheek,
but a quick glance at other CWN columns on homosexuality suggests that
there's something more malicious at work here.


bad enough

Posted by: Diogenes
Feb. 14, 2006 3:20 AM EST

Spokane's Jesuit university is displaying a spirit of lexical
innovation in the basketball arena that some faculty have deemed
"inappropriate," according to this AP story:

    Fans of No. 5 Gonzaga have been asked to stop yelling "Brokeback
Mountain" at opposing players. The reference to the recent movie about
homosexual cowboys was chanted by some fans during Monday's game
against Saint Mary's, and is apparently intended to suggest an
opposing player is gay.

    The chants were the subject of several classroom discussions over
the past week, and the faculty advisers for the Kennel Club booster
group urged students this week to avoid "inappropriate chants" during
the Bulldogs' Saturday game against Stanford, which was nationally
televised on ESPN.

    "We implore the students of the Kennel Club to show the nation
this weekend what makes Gonzaga different," Kennel Club advisers David
Lindsay and Aaron Hill wrote in a letter in the student newspaper, the
Bulletin. "We challenge the students of the Kennel Club to exhibit the
class, the creativeness and the competitive drive that has become a
foundation of this great university."

"We implore the students of the Kennel Club to show the nation this
weekend what makes Gonzaga different." High among such differences is
the number of Gonzaga basketball fans that are students of historical
linguistics. For in employing "brokeback" as a term of general
contempt they are hearkening back to semantic connections as ancient
as the language itself. Indeed, the origin of the adjective "bad," as
given by its etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary, is
semantically indistinguishable from the Kennel Club's new lexeme:

    bad-de (2 syllables) the Middle English reflex of Old English
baeddel, 'man of both genders, hermaphrodite', doubtless like Greek
androgynos, and the derivative baedling, 'effeminate fellow, womanish
man, malakos,' applied contemptuously, assuming a later adjectival

The same evaluative intuition continually resurfaces in English, the
pressures of etiquette notwithstanding. When an Australian says "The
transmission on my Rover is buggered," he too, knowingly or not,
exactly replicates the chain of semantic development that his
linguistic ancestors constructed in the word "bad." That "bad" in
modern English has lost its earliest connotations so as to become the
language's most general term of disapproval is an accident of history;
lexical change is spectacularly unpredictable. The Kennel Club's
coinage follows the same path, as its faculty advisers indicate:
intending to come up with an insult, it succeeded. And Gonzaga's gay
rights group clubbed itself with the same boomerang by conceding what
it was at pains to deny.

In terms of precision of word usage, Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight
would concur with the Oxford English Dictionary that the Kennel Club
was on target: to fail to block-out in the offensive lane is to be
(contextually) womanish, is to be brokeback, is to be bad. When you
consider that St. Mary's allowed Gonzaga's J.P. Batista to pull down
10 defensive rebounds in a 123-point game, you understand that the
"brokeback" taunt -- lexically speaking -- was anything but

To say that "brokeback" was lexically accurate is not to say it was
gracious. Athletic spectators, especially those supporting Catholic
institutions, should realize that it's in poor taste to call a bad
performance bad, especially when that bad performance belongs to one's
opponents. The Kennel Club does not deserve congratulation. If their
sportmanship is spotty, however, their philology is flawless.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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