On Friday, after President Trump abruptly canceled a June 12 meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, reporters scrambled to file updates. One of them was Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, who attempted to get a quote from Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk), an expert on nuclear nonproliferation. The response wasn’t quite what Dale had hoped for, but it was newsworthy in its own way.
Goat rodeo seems like an amusing but innocuous way to describe the chaotic situation that Lewis was alluding to. On the surface, it appears more family friendly than its time-honored synonyms clusterfuck, fuckup, snafu (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up), fubar (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition), and shitshow. Dig a little deeper, though, and you discover the sweary origins of the term.
A rodeo — from the Spanish verb rodear, to round up or surround — features the roping and tying of livestock. Where children or other beginners are involved, the animals may be goats or sheep. (Goat roping dates back at least to the 1910s, according to a 1987 story in The Oklahoman.) But goat-roping also has slang meanings, possibly derived from the separated-by-a-single-vowel goat-raping, itself a euphemism for goat-fucking. (See this Word Detective entry from 2014 for some analysis. And note that goat-fucking is unrelated to ratfucking, which has its own colorful history.) Jesse Sheidlower includes goat-fucking in The F-Word (2009), citing the stock Southern phrase “been to three county fairs and a goat-fucking [or (euphemistically) goat-roping],” which he defines as “seen many astounding sights.” His earliest citation is from 1974. Fourteen years earlier, Hunter S. Thompson had used goat-fucking as a substitute for motherfucking.
Vietnam-era military slang turned goat fuck and its derivations (along with goat dance, goat screw, and goat rope) into synonyms for “fiasco.” An Urban Dictionary entry for goat-rope gives the origin as “US military (specifically Air Force military transport) jargon ca. 1970s-1980s,” and defines it as
an operation or undertaking involving an unnecessarily large number of people, most of them contributing nothing or actually impeding progress. Typically used to refer to flightline operations where military brass felt it necessary to make their presence felt and impede the normal duties/operations of the aircrew, offering “advice” or “assistance” that was neither requested nor needed.
Goat rodeo isn’t in the OED or The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (although the latter has goat fuck and other goat- compounds). The earliest definition in Urban Dictionary is from 2003, and it’s succinct: “A situation that order cannot be brought to any time.” A 2006 entry spells it out in more detail:
A situation that is hopelessly fucked up. The worst of three stages of goat-ness. First is the Goat Rope, defined else where.
Then there is the utilitraian Goat Fuck. This normally requires a serious amount of work to unfuck.
Lastly, there is the Goat Rodeo. The worst of the three, it is beyond even profanity. It describes a situation that involves many individuals screw ups, and implies that the fuck up is already well underway, meaning that there is no hope in stopping the mess.
In 2004, Grant Barrett included goat-rope in his Double-Tongued Dictionary: “a messy or disorganized situation. Also goat roping, goat rodeo.” Commenter “speedstan” visited in 2008 and amplified the definition:
US military (specifically Air Force military transport) jargon ca. 1970s-1980s, referring to an operation or undertaking involving an unnecessarily large number of people, most of them contributing nothing or actually impeding progress. Typically used to refer to flightline operations where military brass felt it necessary to make their presence felt and impede the normal duties/operations of the aircrew, offering “advice” or “assistance” that was neither requested nor needed.
Barrett noted in a 2012 ADS-L listserv post that “if I were to revise that entry today, I would separate out the ‘goat rodeo’ citation and make it a separate entry.” (UPDATE: See Grant Barrett’s comment, below, for an antedating and additional information.)
Why goats? Well, they’re known to be tough and stubborn, they’re often associated with Satan, and to get someone’s goat has been an American idiom meaning “to annoy or irritate” for more than a century. The assonance of goat and rodeo surely hasn’t hurt, either.
When Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile recorded a bluegrass album in 2011, they chose the title The Goat Rodeo Sessions because, as Ma told an NPR interviewer, “so many of the songs’ working titles had the word ‘rodeo’ attached to them.” Thile then looked up “goat rodeo” and thought, “Gee, that’s a version of us” — a situation in which “so many things … go wrong that you need to go right for everything to turn out not utterly disastrous.”
Writing in February 2012 about “the chaos of the Republican calendar” during primary season, John Avlon of The Daily Beast summed it up in the kicker: “This goat rodeo is going to go on for a long time. Bet on it.”
As for the Star’s Daniel Dale, his story about the North Korea summit implosion included Jeffrey Lewis’s “goat rodeo” description, along with this non-sweary clarification: “a phrase that roughly translates to unholy mess.”