Law and lawyers have fascinated me for a long time and at a recent meeting it dawned on me why. Words. How they are perceived, what they mean, how many ways they can be interpreted, not just by lawyers but to each one of us. One of the words we frequently hear now is ‘cowboy,’ but with a negative connotation. Around this part of South Dakota, ‘cowboy’ does not usually conjure up a contrary personality. So I did what any wordsmith would do, I looked the word up.
In addition to the definition of a cowboy as one who herds or works with cattle, is the colloquialism, “an unscrupulous or reckless person in business.” With this definition in mind I do not believe the people who use the word as a negative have a grasp of the definition. Mostly, it grates on me to hear the word we locally use to denote a hard-working cattleman, to describe someone in a negative light.
Every occupation and hobby has its own vocabulary. For a newcomer, whether a city person moving to the country, or an immigrant from across the ocean, the words we use every day can cause a good deal of confusion. In agriculture there are Herefords (a breed of cattle) and heifers (cattle who have not had their first calves). Gilts are female pigs, and a gelding is castrated horse. A piggin’ string is used to tied the feet of calves, after they have been roped. No pigs are involved.
If you think special vocabularies are confusing to you, imagine what it must be for a foreigner to learn English. We drive on the parkway and park in the driveway. If we hurry to do something we hasten, but if we go fast, we do not fasten. Noses run and feet smell. We easily get into the traps of idioms, which is another can of worms. The problem with clichés and idioms is that they cannot be literally translated. Imagine telling a person who is just learning English, “She made a mistake, and now she has egg on her face.” You would know what you meant, but the foreigner might look around for broken eggs. How confusing English must be, even for us whose mother tongue is English.
You get a bit of the idea as you talk to someone who speaks British English instead of American English. We have diapers, they have nappies. To us, the front of a car is a hood, the British call them bonnets. A car trunk to us is a boot to them. Their bathroom is called a loo. That always makes me wonder what we were singing as children, when we played, “Skip to my lou (or was it really loo?)
Peggy Sanders writes from the family ranch. She can be reached at Peggy@PeggySanders.com. ❖