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Slang in the World of Hooky Bulls, Businessman's Events and Dirt Baths

Howdy. I'm Adam Phillips, sitting in for Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble. For this week's Wordmaster, we go the rodeo.

SPEAKER: "Welcome to the Montana rodeo on a Saturday night!"

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association is holding its national championships this week in Las Vegas, Nevada. It's the culmination of hundreds of county and state rodeo competitions, like this one at the Beaverhead, Montana, County Fair.


It's a special kind of athletics on display at the rodeo, where riders show off their cattle-roping skills or struggle to stay aboard wildly bucking horses and bulls. And the rodeo air is always filled with the special words that bull riders, ropers, and steer wrestlers use to describe what they do. It's not always easy to understand what they're saying. Rodeo organizer Jack Bergeson explains, for example, that the rodeo term bulldogging has nothing to do with either bulls or dogs.

JACK BERGESON: "It's another word for steer wrestling. You come out of the chute and you are going out full speed and you are jumping off a horse onto a steer and trying to throw it down. The steer would be the bull and dogging itwould be wrestling with it and throwing it down. It's a big man's event. They call timed events businessman's events because [with those] you're not out there getting dirty like the ruffies."

Ruffies are the rodeo cowboys who take the greatest risks. They ride wild horses called broncs, or they ride horses without saddles, or they take a timed ride on bulls hand-picked for their mean tempers. Animals like that are called rank.

Breaking a horse is one well-known cowboy term for taming or training a spirited horse so that it will accept a saddle and a rider. But one cowboy I talked to says that even horses that are ridden bareback -- that is, without saddles -- are fitted with what is called rigging.

COWBOY: "It's a bareback rigging. It's small, little piece of leather, 10 or 12 inches wide, and that's what these guys hang on to with one hand. That's called a rigging. I don't know if that's so much slang but it's a unique term."

Many timed rodeo events based on ranching skills. For example, steer wrestling, or wrassling as it's usually pronounced on the rodeo circuit, is an event where a steer is cornered, roped, then wrestled to the ground and immobilized. And it is often necessary on the ranch to ride wild, untamed horses in order to train them. Riding wild bulls probably began as a wild entertainment.

Whatever the animal chosen -- steer, wild horse or bull -- chances are excellent the cowboy will soon be hitting the ground himself.

JACK BERGESON: "There is phrase we like to use. It's called the dirt bath. A dirt bath is when you fall off this horse or this bull, you are falling quite a ways. And when you hit the ground, you took yourself a dirt bath! Because you are hitting that dirt pretty hard."

Rodeo work is dangerous work, and cowboys can get hurt or even killed. Bull riding -- where a cowboy jumps atop a wild bull weighing 800 kilograms or more, and tries to ride it for a full seven seconds before being thrown -- is especially risky.

Once the rider is thrown -- and he always is -- he is protected by so-called rodeo clowns like Kevin Higley of Hooper, Utah, who jump into the ring to distract the animal and prevent the cowboy from being gored when the horned bull is feeling, as they say, hooky.

KEVIN HIGLEY: "Hooky means he's gonna come after you and he's gonna fight. And look out, because he's gonna try to get you and hook you out of there. If you get a guy punching his hand with his fist and saying 'this bull is gonna be hooky,' there is a pretty good chance he is going to thump somebody before he gets out of the arena. It's just 'getting thumped.' 'You're gonna get thumped if you don't watch what's going on.'

"Some other things we use is [the phrase] pull your skirt up. The romance of the Western scene is a little different than the professional athletes you see on the professional football games. We all have to keep ourselves in pretty good shape. But we don't have the professional trainers who follow us around and say 'Aw, its okay, you don't need to go out there today.' You got to get out there and just go. So just life your skirt up and get on with it. Get to the next one."

And rodeo manager Jack Bergeson and his pals say there are plenty of phrases for the tourists and other non-rodeo types who come to the rodeo just to be entertained -- safely.

JACK BERGESON AND OTHERS: "Rookies, city slickers -- you know ... you! [Laughter]"

Maybe it's time for me to be skinnin' it -- that is, getting out of here -- before someone puts me on a horse. For Wordmaster, I'm Adam Phillips at the rodeo in Dillon, Montana.