March 09, 2006

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. 

Brokeback 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 or broken-backed, 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 Times piece: brokeback marriage 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 magazine  (GQ for young, hip, 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 (whose 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 together, etc.

I suppose brokeback might 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 brokeback!"

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 reference to Justin Timberlake's tough-guy character in the movie Alpha Dog as possibly a "brokeback alpha dog".

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" -- defamatory BECAUSE 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 men).  Oi.

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 and brokebackingly (Ben Zimmer,  2/15/06) and suffixed adjectives brokebackish and brokebackesque (Mark 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 examples above.   Language  change on the hoof!

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 9, 2006 07:47 PM