WTF; or, A Word's Worth of History

by cowboylands

Language is a dynamic tool–it shapes us as much as we shape it. I will weep if I go into the whole “torture” vs. “harsh interrogation tactic” brouhaha (just call a spade a spade–we did torture, and we shouldn’t) so I will instead shine my small but powerful flashlight on words we no longer choose to use.  

Mystery Ranch, by Max Brand

cover illus. Stanley Borack

Pocket Books, 1952

from the collection of ES

We’ve moved beyond a primarily agricultural mode of existence, yet all too often modern city people are faced with a linguistic puzzle that wreaks havoc in time-sensitive situations, such as the computer-centric workplace. I’m talking about when people use heretofore time-honored cliches that are rooted (cliché) in a past that no longer has much bearing on who we are now and apparently desire to be. 

Case in point: How many of you have had a similar conversation? 

(and thanks, Scott, who is otherwise a linguist extraordinaire)

Scott’s Friend: Yeah, that was a tough row to hoe.

Scott: What?

Friend: A tough row to hoe.

Scott: What the fuck’s a rodaho?

Friend: A. Row. To. Hoe.

Scott: A rodaho?

Friend: A row, like a row of crops. And hoe, like the tool.

Scott: Oh. Ohhhhhh . . . That’s an expression?

I have used “tough row to hoe” before, and in doing so have realized that I have never hoed an entire row of anything. Why wouldn’t I use an expression rooted in my everyday existence, like “it’s a tough avenue to cross during rush hour,” or “it’s a tough eight-story walk-up to climb”? 

One of the reasons I am driven to tap out the words in this blog is the dreadful mistakes people make when they talk about cowboys (see Cowboys Gone Wrong here). Most people don’t know what they talk so much about, and some of the worst mixed metaphors come from people who clearly have never laid a foundation, reeled ’em in as a fisherman, bit the dust as a bronco buster, roped a calf and tried to catch as catch can, had to hunt a human being down to bring him in dead or alive, mined and hit pay dirt, or had to figure out who the hell owned that maverick calf. 

Instead we have the dubious distinction of asking for feedback (isn’t that the sound that hurts your ears?), of being hardwired for certain predilections, or being a blip on someone’s radar

Clearly Americans are in a crisis of identity–we’re part cowboy, fisherman, construction worker, computer technician. Perhaps we’ll always have a soft spot for the ancestral farmer, hunter, and cowboy. Perhaps we’ll always be a mishmash of this and that, and speak like it too. 

And–this may really be a tough row to hoe–we may one day stop using euphemisms for the word torture.

Here’s a good site for the linguistically impaired: “Do You Speak American?” by

The End of the Trail, by Peter Field

cover illus. Earl Bergey

Pocket Book, 1945

from the collection of ES


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