February 11, 2007

New developments on the brokeback front

It's been ten whole months since we reported on references to the movie Brokeback Mountain, mostly in uses of the word brokeback.  Now comes a very indirect reference to the male-male sex in the movie, from Dave Barry in a column "2006 Year in Review", talking about former Congressman Mark Foley.

I caught it in the Funny Times for February 2007, where on p. 5 Barry has two references to Foley:

[in the September entry]  Speaking of vegetables, the United States Congress is rocked by yet another scandal with publication of e-mails and instant messages sent to male pages by Congressman Mark Foley of Florida, in which he explicitly discusses acts of a sheepherding nature.

[in the October entry]  North Korea conducts an underground nuclear test, which is especially troubling because the ground in question is located in Wyoming.  This goes virtually unnoticed in Washington, where everybody continues to be obsessed with the growing [Barry could have said "mounting" here, but perhaps he thought that would be too heavy-handed] body of instant messages generated by Mark Foley, who, despite his busy schedule as a lawmaker, apparently found time to attempt to become sheepherding buddies with pretty much every young male in North America.

In case you're one of the few people in the Western world who somehow missed the fuss over the movie in 2005-06, Barry is alluding here to the fact that Jack and Ennis's man-on-man relationship begins while they are herding sheep (on Brokeback Mountain).  If you don't know this, then Barry's use of sheepherding will be puzzling, though you can guess its meaning from the context.

Meanwhile, brokeback itself has followed a predictable path, from uses that allude to various aspects of the movie's plot to simply 'gay, homosexual', then to 'of questionable masculinity', and, inevitably, to a generic put-down 'lame, uncool, stupid, worthless, messed up' -- that is, gay in its more recent usage, as on the t-shirt in this photo:

(also available, from several sources, as a bumper sticker)

and in the title of this cartoon:

Entertainingly, some of the definitions for brokeback in the Urban Dictionary (at the moment, there are 36) gloss it via gay, either JUST in its generic put-down sense or in BOTH this sense and the older 'homosexual' sense from which the newer sense developed.

On the Queerty site where you can find a photo showing more of the t-shirt guy (and the escalator he's sitting on), there's a sentence with two features of interest to us here at Language Log Plaza:

Every queen and their mother has been emailing us asking how one can purchase the [t-shirt above].

First, there's the "singular they" (in their mother, with their referring back to the singular every queen), a phenomenon we talk about at LLP every so often (most recently here, with more detail and back-references here).  One of the reasons people go for singular they is for mixed-sex reference, thus avoiding unpalatable alternatives, but in this case the reference is to males only, so every queen and his mother would have been fine.  I suspect that the writer is just one of those people who use singular they very generally, not only as an avoidance tactic.

Then there's the singular verb agreement (has been emailing us), though the subject is conjoined and would therefore be expected to take plural agreement.  But plural agreement is just awful: ??Every queen and his/their mother have been emailing us.  The and his/their mother part seems to be functioning as a kind of parenthetical, as in every queen, and his mother too, in which case the singular every queen gets to determine verb agreement.  It seems to me that when the conjuncts are of equal prominence, singular agreement is impossible (*Every boy and his dog goes on long walks together), though plural agreement is not entirely comfortable for me either (?Every boy and his dog go for long walks together); I'd prefer to avoid the coordination (Every boy goes for long walks together with his dog).  No doubt someone has looked at this quirk in agreement, but I don't recall having noticed it before.  (I see that I started with sheepherder sex and ended up with a puzzle in subject-verb agreement -- so like a linguist!)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 11, 2007 01:06 PM