In a rut.
Dear Word Detective: Listening to something on the radio a few days ago about the great genre of “westerns,” someone mentioned something including the words “Dead Man’s Gulch,” or some such. The word “gulch” immediately detached itself from reality and bounced around my cranium like a dried pea in a food processor and became more and more absurd. A quick look at my dictionary showed, as I knew, that it was a ravine or gully, but had no explanation as to where “gulch” might come from. I think it’s of US origin, but nothing more. Can you enlighten me? — David, Ripon, England.
Oh boy, westerns, the original American myth and touchstone of our national psyche, or so I’m told. I must admit I was never, even as a child, very fond of westerns, and I definitely never wanted to be a cowboy. As a matter of fact, if I run the word “cowboy” through my memory banks, the only positive reaction I get is from the phrase “drugstore cowboy,” a 1950s term for a young ne’er-do-well who hangs out at drugstore lunch counters. I definitely wanted that job, which I assumed would involve drinking milkshakes while playing with guns. But by the time I was old enough to hang out anywhere, the lunch counters were gone.
It is weird the way common words you’ve seen a thousand times sort of jump out at you and suddenly seem very strange. Of course, every so often one of those words is truly strange, and you’ve just gotten used to it. “Gulch” is a pretty strange word by anybody’s reckoning.
For one thing, there are six “gulches” in English, three nouns and three verbs. The oldest is the now obsolete verb “to gulch,” meaning “to gulp or swallow greedily,” which first appeared around 1225 and is probably “echoic” in origin, an imitation of the sound of someone gulping. (This “gulch” may in fact be related to “gulp.”) At the beginning of the 17th century, this verb gave us “gulch” as a noun meaning “drunkard.”
Another verb “to gulch” appeared in the early 17th century, but this one meant “to fall heavily.” Oddly enough, this is also an “echoic” formation. Apparently some people hear “gulch” when something hits the ground. This verb, predictably, begat another noun “gulch,” this one meaning “a heavy fall.”
This brings us to the cowboy sort of “gulch,” a narrow and deep ravine with steep sides as is often found in the American Southwest. Such gulches are often formed by flash floods, a fact which is probably our best clue to the origin of this “gulch.” It is thought that the root of this ravine sort of “gulch” is actually the earliest verb “to gulch” meaning “to gulp greedily” or, in particular, its dialectical variant meaning of “to gush,” in reference to the torrents of water that may rush through a gulch after a heavy rain.
By the way, this ravine sort of “gulch” gave us our third kind of “gulch” as a verb, this time dating to the late 19th century and meaning either “to drag wood down a gulch” or “to dig for gold in a gulch.”