Allá en el rancho grande,
allá donde vivía,
había una rancherita
que alegre me decía,
que alegre me decía:
“Te voy a hacer tus calzones
como los que usan los rancheros.
Los comienzo de lana
y los acabo de cuero.”
(Out there on the big ranch,
out there where I was living,
there was a little rancher gal
who used to say to me cheerfully,
who used to say to me cheerfully:
“I’m going to turn your shorts [or pants]
into the kind that the rancher men wear.
I’ll start them out in wool
and finish them up in leather.”)
El rancho, los rancheros, la rancherita: we can picture the romantic scene described in that popular song, and what could be more quintessentially Spanish or Mexican? But there’s a surprise in store allá en el rancho: in terms of word origins, rancho should conjure up images of quiche rather than quesadillas, of pâté and not paella, of tartelettes rather than tortillas or tacos. Mais oui, Spanish rancho comes from French! And, à vrai dire, to tell the truth, the word actually traces even farther back, to Germanic. From Frankish, a Germanic language that gave France its name, Old French had borrowed ranc, a relative of native English ring, and a word that later became English rank. The borrowed noun ranc led to the modern French verb ranger, whose meaning is clear from the borrowed English verb arrange. The French reflexive verb se ranger took on the sense, with respect to troops, ‘to arrange themselves on a campground’ and more generally ‘to set up camp.’ Spanish carried that reflexive verb over as ranchearse, and the derived noun rancho came to mean ‘an encampment.’ Spanish speakers in the New World eventually extended the meaning to what we now think of as a rancho/ranch. English originally used the Spanish form rancho, but by the early part of the 20th century the Anglicized ranch won out.
We began with the first part of a song in Spanish, so let’s give equal time to English and conclude with the refrain of another song:
Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Note that English range, borrowed from French, is etymologically the same as Spanish rancho, though the meanings of the two words, like the buffalo that once inhabited the plains, have roamed.
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman