Yesterday I watched a short video on the New York Times site about the mathematics of lasso tricks – you know, the famous image we have of a lasso being spun in a flat circle. It wasn’t long on details of the math, though it did have a few nice demonstrations of the tricks. But what caught my attention was how the narrator said lasso.

How do you say lasso?

I posed the question on Twitter and got interesting results. It seems that Americans generally, or at least the ones who responded (who seem mostly or all to be urbanites, but from California, Texas, Massachusetts, Utah, Washington, and several other states, but not Wyoming or Montana), say it the way the New York Times guy did. The Canadians – as well as one British guy from Birmingham – say it the way I do. (I’m from Alberta and grew up surrounded by ranchers – i.e., “cowboys.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary lists both pronunciations, but quotes Fowler as saying that my pronunciation is preferred “by those who use it” (i.e., the actual thing, not just the word).

I won’t rope you along any longer. The way I say lasso – the only way I’ve ever really been used to hearing it, either (but I don’t listen to much country music or watch a lot of western movies) – is /læ su/, with the stress on the second syllable or close to even between the two. “Lassoo,” we might write it. The way the Americans all seem to say lasso (though I’m sure there must be exceptions) is with an o vowel at the end, and the stress on the first syllable: “lassoh.”

Now, it’s our word, we rustled it fair and square,* so we can say it how we will – Americans one way, Canadians and Brits another – but we might want to look at its origin for some clue to why Americans say it that way while Canadians and Brits don’t. English got it from the Spanish word lazo, pronounced “la so.” And there are more Spanish speakers in the US to influence that. (Branding expert Nancy Friedman, a Californian, defended her pronunciation with “I live in New Spain, where we lasso words for desayuno.”) No doubt the Spanish influence also helps account for why Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills is “ro-day-o” rather than “ro-dee-o.” We don’t have that Spanish influence in Canada, so our pronunciation stays where it wandered off to.

But the word didn’t originally come from lazo. It originally came from Lazio. Well, that’s what they call the area around Rome now; back in the day, it was Latium, whence the name of the language, Latin. The Latin origin, by way of post-classical lacium, was laqueum. Which meant ‘noose’.

But that Latin word gave us something else, too. After the cowboys came home from a day out swinging lassos to catch their calves for branding – oh, yeah, that’s why they do it, you know, so I suppose that gives a bit more authority to Nancy Friedman, the branding expert (not that kind of branding, though) – they met their ladies, who might be dressed up all pretty in lace. And guess what: that lace that the ladies used to snare the cowboys comes from the same Latin root as lasso. (Now that ladies also lasso, the guys need to catch up with the lace. Though I don’t know if it will snare the ladies.)

*Yes, I know rustling is stealing. I’m making a funny.

5 responses to “lasso

  1. I grew up in the NorthEastern USA, far from cattle ranching country, and have lived in Eastern Canada most of my adult life. I haven’t used the word lasso for many years, but it seems to me — trying it on my tongue — that my people would say “o” for the object and “oo” for the action. The verb was used picturesquely, as Nancy Friedman notes, although she has kept the O in the verb where I recall my eastern countrypersons converting it to U. Cattle branding is a strong image; see also, to rope or corral someone. All mean getting someone into something they might not have chosen given a chance.

  2. Add Oklahoma cattle ranching country to the LASSoh side–both noun & verb. I had never heard other pronunciations till I immigrated to Alberta. And lassOO still seems strange to me–in 45 years here I haven’t gotten used to lassOO or any other variation. What I’m more curious about–why I see lariat or riata much more often in the easy word puzzles that I do than I see lasso. I’m familiar with both words from my reading, but not from my time in Oklahoma.

  3. I accept pronunciation variation, but I can’t help wondering how this one came about. Since “LASS-oh” is close to the Spanish original, did “lass-OO” start as a joke? Did literate but cross-eyed cowboys look at the double-S in “lasso” and extrapolate a double-O? Is there a French version that influenced the Canadian pronunciation? Inquiring minds want to lasso the truth!

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