For me, there’s hardly a more western word than gulch. It immediately brings to mind pictures of cowboys on horses riding in – or towards – a deep dry ravine. The horses’ hooves make sounds as they brake against the gravel downslope: “gulch, gulch gulch”; a bad guy is shot off his horse and hits the dirt: “Gulch!” And afterwards the cowboys are thirsty and gulp some water to quench their thirst…
Funny, though, I don’t associate gulch with drinking. Ravines, yes; falling, yes; but not drinking, even though “gulch” is a perfectly reasonable-sounding word for gulping something cold and fresh to quench your thirst. Other people have thought so. When gulch first showed up in English in the 1200s, it was a verb meaning ‘swallow or devour greedily’ (per the OED), and from that sense there was a noun gulch current in the early 1600s – it has since bitten the dust – meaning ‘glutton or drunkard’. But there was also a noun gulch meaning ‘heavy fall’ that showed up in the later 1600s, and a verb gulch meaning ‘fall heavily’ that followed on that in the 1800s.
The sense we all know now, though, showed up in US English in the early-mid 1800s. There was more of a need for it in the sere and dusty west than in the verdant east, so it’s hardly surprising that it has cowboy associations. It is also associated with gold miners – the OED lists a number of gold-rush terms such as gulch-diggings, gulch-gold, gulch-mine, gulch-washing, and gulch-man.
The gold rush today, of course, is not so literal. If you go out west and find yourself in a gulch with gold, it will more likely be Glitter Gulch, the casino strip on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. But there’s more gold to be dug farther east now: the corridor outside the meeting room of the Ways and Means Committee in the Capitol in Washington, DC, is nicknamed Gucci Gulch for all the lobbyists who loiter there.
One thing’s for sure: if you’re in a gulch you’re less likely to find culture and more likely to meet a vulture. But if westerns have taught us one thing, it’s that greed comes to a bad end: follow your gluttony for gold into a gulch and the gulch will devour you… and belch dust. Ouch!
This is a mighty western word, I reckon. It names a thing you get in places like the sere dirtscapes of the American Southwest, sure, but that’s not all: it names it with a sound that is a staple of the soundtrack of stereotypical life in the cowboy world, the top item in a Foley artist’s bag of sound tricks for western movies, a sound that follows people like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood around.
Listen: The cowboy jumps off his horse; his feet land on the dirt and gravel: “Gulch!” He spits into the dirt. “Gulch.” He puts a feed bag onto his horse and it munches philosophically, “gulch gulch gulch.” He heaves the saddle off the horse and drops it onto a wooden rack, “Gul-ching.” Then he hears a rustle from the chaparral, just offscreen: “Gulch. Gulchgulch.” He takes a cautious step in the rough turf: “Gulch…” He swallows quietly, “gulch,” and a drop of sweat crawls down his forehead. He draws his gun quietly, cocks it slowly, “k-klik…” (Not everything sounds like “gulch,” come on.)
Yep, that sure sounds like a gulcher culture. But what is a gulch really? A narrow ravine with steep sides, created by erosion from runoff and perhaps flash floods. It may or may not have a stream in the bottom. It’s a sort of place where gold panners may be found if there’s gold in them thar hills. An arroyo is a kind of gulch. A wadi may be a gulch. So may a coulee.
Where did the word come from? Well, that’s a whole nother thing. If the form of a word is like a gulch carved into the lexscape, where it came from is like the water that made the gulch. But that stream may not still be running through it. We’re not entirely sure how gulch came to be gulch, but there are other words gulch that have some likely relation. There’s a noun used in the early 1600s for a glutton or drunkard (someone who gulps too much, you may say). There’s another noun used from the later 1600s through the early 1800s for a heavy fall. There’s a verb from the early 1800s meaning ‘fall heavily’. And, most signally, there’s a verb that’s been around since at least the 1200s and seems to relate to other Germanic words with a gulk- root, meaning ‘swallow or devour greedily’.
So if that’s the source, it compares a gaping gully to a gulping gullet. What we know is that the word shows up in the ‘steep ravine’ sense in the early-mid 1800s. And it sounds so earthy and evocative that simply using the term in a place name – especially if it’s in a movie – plunks down a backdrop of tawny dust and squinty-eyed cowboys with guns and spurs, and maybe some gold panners or other denizens of the big dry dusty dangerous empty.