A lariat is a long rope with a running noose for ranch and range work with c [80 ft reata especial por los charros de Jalisco, Mexico] attle and horses. Originally made of four plaits of braided rawhide, the lariat has an eye or loop at one end, through which the other end of the rope runs, enabling the formation of a noose to catch horses and cattle.

The roots of this word, learned by American newcomers from Mexican ranch hands early in the 19th century have had a long, hard verbal ride, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain in the 17th century, and before that, from ancient Italy during the spread of the Roman empire to the Iberian peninsula, as early as the first century CE.

Etymology of Lariat
Lariat is an example of a relatively common mishearing of a foreign word, where the listener, newly acquainted with the word but not too familiar with its originating language, hears the definite article as part of the word itself. For example, many words borrowed into English through Moorish Arabic, words that begin with /al/ (it means ‘the’ and is the Arabic definite article) have the article attached when it is not usually needed. Thus the word algebra is Arabic al-jebr ‘the reuniting (of numerical parts).’ Other borrowings from Arabic with the definite article possibly mistakenly attached are alcohol, alcove, alembic, alfalfa, and alkali.

 The same affixing error occurred with lariat when first heard by American cowboys who did not know Spanish. Lariat is from Spanish la reata ‘the lasso, the rope.’ The cowboys heard the word for lasso as lariata and shortened it to lariat.

La reata, the Spanish feminine noun in turn derives from a verb reatar = re ‘again’ + atar ‘to tie up.’ Atar is the Spanish version of a verb brought to Spain by Roman soldiers, re-aptare ‘to apply again, to redo, to fit something around something else.’ Like a rope around a cow! Hey, it fits!

The spelling riata is seen frequently. Occasionally encountered in rodeo copy and American cowboy fiction is the Spanish agent noun, reatero ‘one who makes or uses a lariat.’

Reata is the name of the vast cattle ranch in Edna Ferber’s gushy 1952 novel of Texas, Giant, and in the Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor epic film of the novel directed by George Stevens in 1956.


James Dean in the movie "Giant" with Reata ranch house in the background

What is the lay of a lariat?
It is the stiffness of the rawhide used to make the rope. If the braids of the lariat are made of bull hide, they will produce a very stiff lasso suitable for heel roping.

 The Mexican way to keep a reata supple is to tie it between two trees, rub it first with lemon juice (cut a fresh lemon in two and rub the fruit along the length) and then rub it with beef fat (suet).  This keeps the leather from drying. 

Etymology of Lasso
Lasso is another rope word borrowed into English from Spanish vaqueros in America. A lasso has a loop or running noose to catch horses and cattle.

Lasso is a modification of Spanish lazo. Mounted Roman soldiers who rode horses in the early conquest of Spain brought from Rome their common word for noose or rope-loop and that was the Latin word laqueus ‘noose,’ origin of Spanish lazo. Roman hunters of small game also used laqueus to whom it meant a snare used to catch a rabbit.

 Etymology of Honda or Hondo
The Spanish word for the loop or ring is also used in cowboy slang. It is honda or hondo. La honda is the Spanish word for sling. It derives from Latin funda ‘sling.’ Part of the Roman army was its company of funditores, literally ‘slingers’ but in practice ‘lightly-armed soldiers.’ “Hondo” was a so-so John Wayne western movie and later a really crappy TV western series.

Right now, muchachos, I gotta mosey on over to the cookhouse and lasso me some grub.

Bill Casselman

April 13, 2016

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At the Wording Desk

The cowgirl in our title graphic is the work of Gil Elvgren (1914-1980), one of America's best pin-up and glamour illustrators.

Cowboy Words like Lariat, Lasso & Honda: Spanish-American Gifts to our Wild West Vocabulary

Bill Casselman