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shameless pleading





Goat rodeo

No respect.

Dear Word Detective: I work as an ASL/English Interpreter and have been in the business of listening intently to language for closing on 13 years. These days, I am rarely challenged by anything new. I had the recent pleasure of coming across a new expression that neither I nor my colleague knew and that an internet search has yielded very little information to help illuminate the meaning of this expression. The phrase used was “goat rodeo” and was used in the sense that too many organizers of an event would lead to a “goat rodeo.” It seems to be another way of saying “too many cooks spoil the broth,” but I have no idea where this expression came from or how it came to be used in this way. Any insights to offer? — Andrea K Smith.

Insights? A few. Actually, the best insight I have to offer came from just reading your question. It rang a distant bell in the dusty attic I call my memory, and I realized that I had answered a very similar question about six years ago.

The question I answered back then was from someone who had been examining the lines of code that make up a computer program, and had noticed that the original programmer had left a note in the code using the term “goatrope” in a clearly derogatory sense to mean something akin to “a complete mess.” In tracing the term, I found that it most often appeared either hyphenated (goat-rope) or as two separate words, and seemed to have appeared in the 1970s as military slang meaning “a complete mess, waste of time or very confused situation.” That would make “goat rope” equivalent to the more popular “snafu,” an acronym for “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up” (“fouled,” of course, being a sanitized form of the original “f word”). The only hint of an origin I found was an earlier form, “goat roper,” which was in civilian use by the late 1960s meaning “a country bumpkin” or, among country folk, “an incompetent person pretending to be a farmer.” The logic of “goat roper” is not immediately apparent; perhaps roping goats was thought to be the apex of pointless rural activity. If so, “goat rodeo” might follow naturally from “goat roper” and “goat rope.”

In checking up on whatever progress might have been made in the past few years on the mystery of “goat rope,” I discovered that there had been a discussion of “goat rodeo” earlier this year on ADS-L, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society. The occasion was the appearance of the phrase in an article on the plethora of candidates then lining up for the Republican primaries (The GOP’s Primary Calendar Chaos, Daily Beast (online), 2/17/12): “This goat rodeo is going to go on for a long time. Bet on it.”

In sifting through the various citations mentioned in the ADS-L discussion and elsewhere, it became clear that I had been taking the “rope/roper/rodeo” component of the term far too literally. “Goat roper/rope” and “goat rodeo,” as well as several other variants (“goat dance,” “goat screw”), are apparently all euphemistic forms of the original slang phrase, which involves the venerable “f word” and is close to another variant, “goat raper.” Interestingly, the earliest citation for this family of phrases in Jesse Sheidlower’s magisterial book “The F Word” is from Hunter S. Thompson in 1965: “Kentucky was a Wolfean nightmare and New York was a goatdance.” Now we know the phrase Hunter really meant, but the form “goat rodeo” has been used for so long at this point that I don’t see a problem with using it as freely as we describe a confused mess as a “snafu.”

6 comments to Goat rodeo

  • Charlie N

    I was one of your question-askers who previously asked about “Goat-rope” many years ago (1980-ish?). It’s nice to see the related “Goat Rodeo” explained. I guess it’s the circle of life.

  • Joyce Melton

    I lived in San Angelo, Texas back in the 70s for awhile and goat-roper was the ironic usage for the locals to indicate someone who didn’t get into town very often. It’s also the only place I’ve ever lived that had goat on the local fast food menus because they really do ranch the critters in the area.

  • Dave Neil

    re: Goat Dance

    Of possible enlightenment, if correct, is that “tragedy” in the theatric sense and from there to the misfortune sense supposedly derives from Greek [i]trag oidea[/i] meaning goat dance and having to do with bachanalia.

  • Doug Gifford

    Use of “Goat Rodeo” to describe the current US/N.Korea talks:

  • All of these may well be true on independent trajectories, but I would like to point out that when I was a kid in the West, during the late 1960s there was a thing called “Li’l Britches Rodeo” – rodeo in which the participants were all kids. Kind of like little league baseball, age grouped etc.

    For most of the roping and tying events, at least for girls and young kids, goats were used rather than cattle (because they were smaller and less dangerous). I never participated, but some in my schools did (not so much my friends and I never attended these, but they were covered in local papers, etc).

    As we moved into high school age, I started hearing references to “goat ropers” and I thought it related to that. In any case those events were chaotic and amateurish and lots of moms and dads pushing for thier kids to win…

    So another layer of nuance, even if it isn’t the direct source.

  • Ed Brown

    Having seen photos of grandparents, it was common for children to have goat pulled carts as they played “grown up” simulating the adults’ horses and carriages. Likewise, a “goat rodeo” would be a children’s rodeo, so a “goat rodeo” suggests children (or amateurs and incompetents) trying to play grown up on a difficult task and making a mess of it.

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