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.”

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