A couple of nights ago I was watching the classic movie The Silence of the Lambs, during which there is an appearance by a moth. Specifically, it’s the Death’s-head Hawkmoth or Acherontia lachesis. For the entomologist, the fascinating feature of this moth is that on its thorax is a marking that looks like a skull.
For the etymologist, the fascination is with the origin of the name. Or names. The first part, acherontia, comes from Greek mythology and the river Acheron, which is found in Hades and is a branch of the Styx. The second element, lachesis, also derives from mythology and the three Fates; Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho would spin the thread of Life, Lachesis would measure it, and Atropos would choose the mode of a person’s death and then cut the thread. This deathly connection is also found in the two other species of moth – Acherontia styx and Acherontia atropos.
But what caught my attention were two jobs mentioned in the end credits. The first was “Moth Wrangler” and the second was “Assistant Moth Wrangler.” Wranglers for moths? How much wrangling does a moth take? As far as I was concerned, a wrangler in the US was someone who rounded up cattle or horses, occasionally swirling a lasso to subjugate an unruly animal. So the inevitable image I had was of cowboys chasing down moths and trying to snag them with ropes.
Ah, but times have moved on since the days of the Wild West. According to the New Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition) the original US definition was “a person in charge of horses or other livestock on a ranch” but that has since extended to include “a person who trains and takes care of the animals used in a movie.”
In the 1982 movie Creepshow, there is a “Roach Wrangler” credited, and in 1984’s Hollywood Hot Tubs there’s a “Rat Wrangler.” Patti Rocks (1989) has a “Skunk Wrangler,” Look Who’s Talking Too (1990) includes a “Sperm Wrangler,” and James and the Giant Peach (1996) has a “Spider Wrangler.” OK, so maybe the sperm wrangler is a little tongue in cheek, but you get the drift of how the word has shifted to encompass much more than just horse management.
So where did the wrangler come from in the first place?
As a verb, the OED has it popping up in 1377 in Piers Plowman;
There as wratthe and wranglyng is þere wynne þei siluer
At this point, it is defined as meaning;
To dispute angrily; to argue noisily or vehemently; to altercate, contend; to bicker.
The word appears to comes from Low German wrangen meaning to struggle, to wrestle, or just to make an uproar.
It appears as a noun in 1520in the sentence;
Many one… ageynst Lawe and Reason somtyme wyll stryue and… be full of questyons, wherfore they be takyn for wrangelers and euyll people.
By this time, the noun was being used to refer to a person who engages in angry dispute or quarreling. Then, in the mid-1800’s, it took on another very specific meaning to refer to a student at England’s Cambridge University who was place in the first-class of the mathematical tripos – a set of exams for a degree.
The sense of someone who is in charge of horses on a stock farm – or even a herder in general – is first seen in the US in 1888 in an article for the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine; “There are two herders, always known as ‘horse-wranglers’—one for the day and one for the night.” But in what sense does this notion of “wrangling” have anything to do with the original wrangler? The notion of a wrangler taking on a problem working through it has some resonance but it seems a little stretched.
Some sources, such as the Merriam-Webster dictionary suggest that the word is a corruption of the Mexican Spanish word caballerango, a groomsman or ranch hand. The first part of the word, caballer, clearly comes from caballo, the Spanish for “horse.” The second part, rango, means either “range” or “rank,” the latter being the operative one here, with the cabellerango being “the ranking horseman” or “master of the horses.” The cowboys then shortened the word to wrangler based on the sound similarity between “rango” and “wrangler.”
Which brings us to Johnny Depp and his new animated movie, “Rango.” Depp is the voice for a chameleon who becomes the sheriff of a western town. Although I have so far not been able to find any comments on the choice of the name, I have to think that it’s not too much of a stretch to see it as a contraction of caballerango, especially since Rango is (a) a cowboy and (b) the boss or ranking official. Tragically, I don’t have the clout to directly ask either Depp or the film’s director, Gore Verbinski, whether my interpretation has any truth. Still, even if it doesn’t you have to admit it would make a pretty decent urban legend!