As Aina and I were waiting for a subway train today, we read news headlines on the TV screen above the platform. We saw one about an incident in Florida where a police officer had to wrangle a 3-metre python. Whatever they meant by wrangle. What did they mean by wrangle?

I grew up in ranch country in Alberta, so wrangle is very familiar to me. I wore Wrangler jeans, saw Jeep Wranglers (though pickup trucks are more common vehicles for actual wranglers), and of course saw people wrangling horses and cattle. Wrangling involves an assortment of activities dedicated to getting those animals where they oughta be, but when I thought about that snake in Florida, I thought about the endgame of calf-roping: wrestling the critter to the ground and tying three of its legs together.

Obviously you can’t tie three of a snake’s legs together. You can wrestle with it, though, and maybe get tangled up with it. I mean, the dude could have used a stick and a bag or a pole and a net – in fact, that seems more likely – but to me that’s just, you know, catching or capturing. Wrestle just seems a kindred word to wrangle.

It’s not, though. Yes, it has the same –le suffix, which indicates ongoing repeated action. It also starts with wr. But plenty of Old English and Proto-Germanic words started with wr, and modern descendants of them still do: wreak, writhe, wretch, wriggle, write… No, wrangle is not related to wrestle. It is, however, related to wring and wrong.

Yes, all three words – wring, wrong, wrangle – come from the same old root, with different vowel grades (you know, as in stink, stank, stunk). That root has to do with opposition, contrariety, hostility, and similar things such as sourness. Wrong first meant ‘physically crooked or bent’ and from that gained a more abstract sense. Wring started with the ‘squeeze’ sense and over time gained the specific connotation of twisting (which even now is not absolutely required; a clothes wringer – I mean the machine – doesn’t twist the clothes, it presses them).

And wrangle didn’t first mean ‘control animals’. It comes from a sense meaning ‘struggle’ but, in the form wrangle (as opposed to wrang), it first meant ‘bicker, argue, debate’. Yup, if you see a mention of someone wrangling with someone else, as in arguing, that’s not a figurative reference to cattle; it’s the sense the word has had since at least the 1300s. In usages dating back to the 1600s, you can wrangle someone out of a possession or into a condition. The sense referring to managing horses and other critters dates back only to the end of the 1800s.

So, with that in mind, I get a different image of the officer wrangling with the snake. “Get in the bag!” shouts the officer. “No, you get in the bag!” the snake hissshouts back. “You’re out of line!” the officer says. “Out of line?!” the snake protests. “I am a line!”

But then it gets good, because the officer knows etymology and sees that the snake is crooked. “You’re wrong!” the officer says. And the snake… well, all the snake can do is tie itself up and declare, “I’m knot!” But then the officer can pick it up and wrangle it into a bag.

One response to “wrangle

  1. Wrangle to mean squabble or argue is familiar to me from my childhood. My father, who had Irish parents and cane from the rural far South of New Zealand, used it routinely to refer to kids’ quarreling. Regarding animals, it seems to have become a term of art in film and television production. An ‘animal wrangler’ credit refers to a person who manages or handles animals on set and trains them to perform.

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