I grew up in bucolic surroundings. But until sometime in my adolescence, I wouldn’t have thought so. Not because I didn’t think where I lived was rural, pastoral, etc. – no, that much was obvious. It was just that before I learned what the word bucolic meant, it would not have seemed to me to mean what it meant.
Just look at it: does it really seem so pastoral? I mean, I suppose you might think of Buford, a stereotypical rural hick name, or a calf with colic, or some young buck, or a cow lick, or something like that. But you could as easily think of a baby with colic, or something abusive or belligerent, or for that matter osso buco, or a belt buckle, or a back alley, or even Lauren Bacall…
As @wettbutt on Twitter put it, “bucolic is the most thesaurus outing adjective ever. it doesnt sound like what it is at all..it’s a bullshit trap word crafted by pranksters.” In response, @GalaxyDogg said, “it always makes me think of uncontrollable vomiting for some reason”; @Austin_H2O said, “sounds like a disease for rich babies”; and @Krinkle8 caught another overtone with “bucolic plague.” Not everyone agreed, of course. But you can see the problem.
The big problem is that when you encounter an uncommon word, you probably hope it will at least sound appropriate to the sense. You may like the crispness of crepuscular, but it hardly sounds like twilight, does it? You may hesitate to use pulchritude because it sounds more appropriate to ugliness than to beauty. Dazzling, brilliant things may be called fulgurant or coruscating, but those words, gah, hardly produce the best effect! And so on. There’s a sort of phonetic “You don’t belong around here.”
So why do we have this word? Well, we got it from the Romans, and the Romans got it from the Greeks. The Greeks had a word for ‘cow’, βοῦς bous, which comes through Latin to us in words such as bovine. They also had a word for ‘watcher’ or ‘keeper’, κολος kolos. From those they got βουκόλος, ‘cowherd’, and the adjectival form of that was βουκολικός, which became Latin bucolicus. I’m sure it all sounded perfectly reasonable to them.
In fact, if we called a cowboy a bucolos, I doubt too many people would find that a phonetically inappropriate word. The sounds are pretty similar between cowboy and bucolos (more so with the plural bucoloi – though if we went with the Latinized version it would be bucolus and bucoli), and cowboys do often wear belt buckles, after all.
But bucolic has not transferred to the cowherders in English. Nope, it’s transferred to the rural setting. Places where cows are herded. The opposite of urbanity. And it partakes in our stereotypes and ideals: these rural places are sleepy, quiet, calm, laconic (there’s another sound match), maybe a bit backwards (hmm… back, buc). Happily isolated. People used to write bucolic poetry, even.
Well, if you go somewhere bucolic right now, in the early spring, you may hear a quiet countryscape, the wind, some tractors, a few cows, and some tweeting. But the tweeting may not agree with your choice of adjective…