loco

In the issue of the journal The Friend dated “Fifth-Day, Sixth Month 16, 1910,” there appeared an unsigned story entitled “Blossom and the Crazy Weed.” Here’s a passage from it:

Blossom was sick, and nobody could tell what was the matter. Everyone had a remedy to suggest, however. “Maybe she’s been lying in the wet grass and taken cold. Let’s soak her feet in hot water and give her some ginger tea,” said Lena.

“More likely she’s been eating too much,” said Bob, remembering the usual cause of his aches and pains. “Better put her on short rations for a while.”

“Give her a pill, one with sugar all over it,” suggested Baby Jean. “That will make Blossom all well.”

When the Mitchells sold their city home and went to live on a Western ranch, Papa Mitchell gave his four little children a share in the live-stock: A lamb, a half dozen Plymouth Rock chickens, two pigs, and Blossom, the beautiful brown and white Jersey, but of none of these possessions were they as fond as of Blossom.

“She does such queer things, papa,” Roger, the eldest boy, explained to his father. “Sometimes she acts so stupid and then she will cut up the funniest antics as if she didn’t know what she was doing.”

“Well, if she isn’t better by to-morrow,” said Papa Mitchell, “we’ll have to send for Neighbor Dickinson. They say he’s the best horse and cow doctor in the county.”

That evening as Roger sat reading the farm paper his father took, he suddenly exclaimed, “Sounds amazingly like it.” When his brother asked him what he meant, he said, laughingly, “That’s a secret only good enough for one.” He went early to bed that evening, and the next morning before anybody except the sun was up, he was on his way to the lower range, where Blossom and the other cattle pastured. For a full half hour he hunted all over the big pasture. Suddenly he heard a sharp rattle. It sounded very much like a rattlesnake, but it proved to be only the rattling of seeds in the dried pod of a plant. “That’s it,” he cried, when he had looked at the weed. “It’s exactly like the description in the paper.” He picked some of it and hurried homeward. The family were eating breakfast when he arrived.

“You needn’t bother to send for a doctor to find out what is the matter with Blossom,” he said to his father. “I’ve found out the trouble. Blossom’s ‘plumb locoed,’ as the cowboys say. See! I found this in the pasture.” And he held up the weed he had brought with him.

Woolly locoweed in west Texas

Woolly locoweed in west Texas

His father examined the plant carefully. “You’re right, my son. It’s the dangerous loco weed.” Roger, you have probably saved us hundred of dollars by this discovery.”

“Is it poison? Mustn’t we touch it?” inquired the younger children eagerly.

“To horses and cattle it is a slow poison, like cigarettes or drink made of alcohol to human beings. ‘Loco’ weed is really the Spanish for ‘crazy’ weed.”

The father in the story was of course correct, and one early English use of loco was, as we see here, in locoweed. The fact that these leguminous plants grow natively in the Southwest of the United States, where Spanish had long been the lingua franca, explains why the plant’s English name locoweed has a Spanish word in it. A century after the story in the magazine, which happens to be this very year, we find English speakers using loco by itself as a lighthearted way of saying ‘crazy.’

In every language there are common words whose origins aren’t clear, and Spanish loco is one of them. A plausible hypothesis is that it came from the Arabic feminine adjective lawqa’, which meant ‘foolish.’ Whatever the origin of loco, it has given rise in Spanish to the noun locura ‘craziness’ and the verb enloquecer ‘to go crazy,’ which is what happens to animals that eat locoweed.

©2010 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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