More brokeback generalizations
Mark Liberman has
been on the alert
for new uses of the adjective brokeback
that are derived from the
movie title Brokeback Mountain
The range of meanings turns out to be very broad, involving rapid
expansion along familiar paths of semantic extension, almost right to
the end of the road: words that start out attributing specific
properties that are negatively evaluated in the culture often end up
being usable as generic disparagements or insults, unmoored in the
minds of many speakers from those specific properties. Gay
is a familiar example; although
the (relevant part of) the path starts with an attribution of
homosexuality, a fair number of people are now also using it as an
adjective merely conveying negative opinion.
Mark reports a suggestion that Brokeback X is some kind of
snowclone. Well, it's certainly a generalization and it alludes
to the movie, but I'm reluctant to call it a snowclone. It's just
the use of the (piece of a) proper name brokeback
as an adjective with a
meaning that is in some way related to the content of the movie.
in the fictional
geographical name is presumably just a variant of brokenback
-- there are several
Brokenback Mountains in the U.S., and a Brokenback Mountain Range in
Australia -- which in turn is a variant of brokenbacked
, an adjective that,
according to the OED, is attested since ca. 1400, originally just
meaning 'having a broken back', but eventually taking on various
transferred and figurative meanings. On 1/24/06 Carol Crompton
reported on ADS-L that the version of the folksong "Liza Jane" that she
learned as a child included the line "Brokeback mule, I'm bound to
ride" -- which would appear to have brokeback
meaning 'swaybacked', or possibly just 'worthless'. In the movie
the mountain in question has double peaks.
It may be that the movie has encouraged the return of 'broken,
worthless' as a meaning for brokeback
That's one way of seeing the Danny Schechter headline "Brokeback Media"
that Mark noted -- as just conveying that the media are broken.
One set of semantic extensions of brokeback
turning on the content of the movie really use a lot of that content,
in particular men with secret gay lives. There's the use that
Mark reported from a recent New York
referring to a marriage involving such a man. And
there's a use reported on soc.motss recently by Jed Davis: brokeback Mormon
to refer to a
Mormon who is such a man -- this with reference to a stage performance
"Confessions of a Mormon Boy", about the life of a married gay Mormon
man (who leaves his marriage).
Another (putative) use turns on the fact that the two men in the movie
are, in the eyes of the rest of the world, heterosexual and are also,
apparently, fishing buddies (though, in fact, no fish get caught on
those fishing trips). Out of this we get a use reported in the
"Slang" feature on the "Know + Tell" page (p. 51: "Numbers,
nomenclature, and news for the conspicuously clued-in") in the
January/February 2006 issue of Details
and fashion-conscious metrosexuals and gay men):
adj. Descriptor for any activity
performed together by two heterosexual men (e.g. brokeback brunching,
brokeback shopping, etc.). PROVENANCE: Suburban cineplexes.
USAGE: "Where's Bob?" "Oh, he's out brokeback bowling with Dale."
Brokeback Bowling (Alley)
"Love is a strike of nature" -- is one of the many lampoons of Brokeback Mountain
advertising proclaims "Love is a force of nature!"), which clutters up
a search on "brokeback bowling", but as far as I can tell, the rest of
the hits trace back to the Details
piece, so I'm somewhat suspicious of this meaning. It also doesn't seem
like a particularly useful extension. In the usage example,
"brokeback" contributes very little, since "with Dale" specifies that
Bob is bowling with another man (presumably, the sexual orientations of
the two men are already known to the speakers, and in any case are
irrelevant to their participation in bowling); "He's out bowling with
Dale" would do just as well, and is shorter. In "He's out
brokeback bowling", "brokeback" contributes something, but the sentence
is less informative than "He's out bowling with Dale".
In any case, brokeback activity of this sort is not quite the same
thing as the "man date" described in the NYT
last spring, since "man date"
specifically excluded standard guy activities like going to sports
events, having a drink together at the neighborhood bar, jogging
I suppose brokeback
also be used as a modifier of activities if those involved two GAY
men -- an out couple, a closeted couple, or just two friends who
happened both to be gay. But I have no cites.
We are now moving into the arena of sexuality. Some of the
reported uses seem to cover "adopting stereotypical macho behavior to
cover up being gay", as Alice Faber put it on ADS-L, 3/1/06. Or
covering up mere effeteness. Consider this exchange reported by
Jesse Sheidlower on ADS-L, 2/13/06:
I was having an (online) conversation
with an English friend, who teased me about the supposed Anglophilia I
manifest in my dress, so I said, "Well, I'm getting a motorcycle to
counter my image as an effete fop," and he replied, "A motorcycle? How
These uses are no longer so closely connected to the movie, since the
guys in the movie ARE
in fact highly masculine, in most
ways (except for that same-sex desire thing); they aren't putting it
on. But you can see how you might get to such meanings.
Of course, we can get the combination of hypermasculinity plus closeted
homosexuality without any cover-up intended (as in the movie).
This was the interpretation Indigo Som (ADS-L, 2/6/06) put on a
Justin Timberlake's tough-guy character in the movie Alpha Dog
as possibly a "brokeback
Jesse Sheidlower had earlier (1/31/06) posted about a related
extension. This time we have the testimony of the original
speaker as to what he meant:
The relevant sentence was along the
lines of "He got a Hummer? That's so brokeback!". On further
questioning, the speaker said that it was used in reference to things
that are so exaggeratedly masculine as to call into question the
sexuality of the man involved. Thus a man driving a minivan wouldn't be
brokeback, but a man driving a Hummer would be. Speaker was a New York-raised
late-30s heterosexual man, who hadn't seen the film.
We are now led to a cluster of meanings for brokeback
that cover 'unmasculine,
unmanly', 'faggy, effeminate', and 'gay, homosexual', three
meaning domains that are tightly connected in the folk mind.
(Words that start out meaning one of these things tend to take on one
or both of the others.) Plus the related meaning domains 'girlie,
feminine', 'flamboyant', and 'homoerotic'. As we've seen already,
these six domains are so closely connected to one another in such
complex ways that it's often hard to be sure which meaning(s) someone
intended by using brokeback
even if you have the context.
Mark reported on several cites that seemed to him to just be conveying
'gay': "Brokeback Gaujiro", "Geek Fu Brokeback Edition", and "Brokeback
Bomber"; and from Matthew Hutson, "Brokeback Mohamed", "Brokeback
Steelers", and "Brokeback Krypton". Most or all of these are, in
Mark's words, "apparently malicious if not positively defamatory" --
they attribute homosexuality.
Others are harder to work out. Here's Geoff Nathan on ADS-L,
1/26/06, with news from the locker room:
I can report that on Wednesday morning
I actually heard the use of 'brokeback' in the wild. While in the
men's locker room (really) of our local fitness center another denizen
recommended to a third the use of a shaving cream he had learned about
from his wife. But, he assured the guy he was talking to, it
wasn't a 'brokeback thing'--it was a men's shaving cream made by a
women's face care company.
The ADS-L folks then went into a discussion (still not fully resolved)
that I would now describe as being about whether 'gay', 'faggy',
'girlie', or 'unmanly' (or perhaps some combination of these) might
have been intended.
More recently (ADS-L, 2/28/06), Ben Zimmer passed on a
snarky Defamer posting
A mysterious organization known only as
the Global Language Monitor has released its annual list of the year's
most influential "Hollywood words and phrases." Using advanced and
sophisticated tracking techniques available to anyone with access to
Google, the group has decreed "Brokeback" — that highly evocative cluster
of geographical peaks and valleys on the map of the human heart that
has quickly turned into yet another synonym for "faggy" — as Hollywood's
word of the year.
This one specifically picks out 'faggy' as the meaning. But the
site's url includes the substring
so we're into some mixture of 'faggy' (flamboyantly effeminate
presentation of self) and simple 'gay' (having sexual desire for other
Since we're into flamboyance, Mark cited "Brokeback Baptists" used with
reference to "the appearance of a 'flamboyantly heterosexual Baptist
theologian'". We're way far afield now.
Back to one more combination of semantic domains, this time from the
world of sports, where insult is cultivated as an art form. A
report from Ben Zimmer (ADS-L, 2/16/06):
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).
We start with an attribution of homosexuality, which is routinely used
in a sports context to convey at least unmanliness, usually effeminacy
(gay men are sissies) if not actual femininity (gay men are
symbolically women). So "brokeback" conveys general contempt --
badness, worthlessness. Now we're inches away from uses of brokeback
that are as bleached of
sexual reference as some uses of gay
Maybe that's (part of) what's going on in the Schechter headline Mark
cited. Unless the adjective brokeback
goes out of fashion real soon, I expect to find some examples that are
clearly fully bleached.
Finally, there are attested derived adverbs brokebackly
2/15/06) and suffixed adjectives brokebackish
Peters, 2/15/06). One of the brokebackish
cites comes close to 'homoerotic', although it could be understood as
merely 'like Brokeback Mountain
"A friend sent me the 'Brokeback Top Gun' video --- actually, it's
clips from the film arranged in a way that makes it look rather
Brokebackish." Almost all of them present the difficulties of
interpretation seen in some of the plain brokeback
Language change on the hoof!
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 9, 2006 07:47 PM