I just finished “Brokeback Mountain” (cached version; apparently the New Yorker has taken the story offline) and can’t believe I never read Proulx before: she’s a superb writer, and this is a great story. I just thought I’d mention that I learned several new words from my reading: grullo ‘mouse-dun horse’ (pronounced GROO-yo), krummholz ‘stunted forest characteristic of timberline’ (apparently pronounced KROOM-holts, with the “oo” of book, though that sounds impossibly pretentious to my ears; anybody know if people who talk about it in real life say “kroom” or “crumb”?), duff ‘partly decayed organic matter on the forest floor’ (from a dialect form of dough!), and spurge ‘any of a family of widely distributed herbs, shrubs, and trees often with a bitter milky juice’ (via French from Latin expurgare ‘expurgate,’ because of the action of the juice). Oh, and if you didn’t know, Proulx is pronounced PROO.
Thanks for the book, Eric, and I can’t wait to see the movie!


  1. Going Dotty in Kansas says

    Yo Mr. Hat — did Eric give you the collection in which Brokeback Mountain first appeared — i.e., Close Range? All the stories are splendid, including that one-paragraph homage to high cranks on the high prairie. (I think even Ang Lee would find it a stretch to turn that one into a movie…speaking of movies, does anyone know whether “Postcards” has been optioned?)

  2. I learned the English word “duff” as the translation of the Carrier word kandzool. A Carrier speaker asked me what the English for this was and I didn’t know, so she asked a forester and later told me the result.

  3. Is “duff” the same thing as “leaf mould”, which is what I think I’d call it? Googling both suggests that some distinction exists, but not what it is. (There seem to be a lot of references to “pine duff” vel sim., so maybe duff is, or at least can be, from conifers while leaf mould is from broadleafed trees.)

  4. To me “leaf mould” has to consist of putrefying leaves. It isn’t sufficient for them to be desicated and crumbling, and they must be leaves, not conifer needles. “duff” on the other hand includes all of the organic litter on the forest floor, rotting or not. In my experience, it consists mostly of conifer needles, but that may be the result of my learning the term in a context in which there are few deciduous trees.

  5. Well, that’s the way “Krummholz” is pronounced in German. Of course, I could imagine that some people might wish to anglicize it into something else (Crumb-holes?).

  6. Well, that’s the way “Krummholz” is pronounced in German.
    Well, sure. And Berlin is pronounced bear-LEEN, and Paris is pronounced pah-REE in French. But we’re speaking English, and I don’t see why the vowel would be preserved if it was used as an English word and not a quoted bit of German. When people talk about krummhorns, in my experience they say CRUMB-horn and not KROOM-.

  7. Thanks for the link, lh. It’s the first time I’ve read Annie Proulx. Great story. (BTW how do you pronounce her surname and where does it come from?)
    I found a phrase in the story that I hadn’t come across before:
    “Ennis said he’d been putting the blocks to a woman who worked part-time at the Wolf Ears bar in Signal where he was working now for Car Scrope’s cow-and-calf outfit, but it wasn’t going anywhere and she had some problems he didn’t want.”
    ‘Putting the blocks to”. I assume it merans sexual congress (or just courting?) but what’s the origin?

  8. >Well, sure. And Berlin is pronounced bear-LEEN…
    Yes, that’s right. “Crumbholes” might sound a bit odd though.
    I suppose it’s all a question of whether the word is actually used in normal English discourse, or whether it remains a special term used only by those who know how to pronounce it in its original German form. Which may indeed sound quite pretentious.
    Strangely, Krummholz is actually used in German to mean either a particular type of pine tree “Krummholz-Kiefer” or just a bent piece of wood. What an odd word…

  9. I suppose it’s all a question of whether the word is actually used in normal English discourse, or whether it remains a special term used only by those who know how to pronounce it in its original German form.
    Exactly. And the fact that Proulx uses it as a normal word (“drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone”) and Webster’s prints it as such (not in italics) makes me think there is a body of speakers who use it as such, and it’s their pronunciation I’m curious about. What I’m reminded of is the word chukar ‘kind of partridge,’ which was pronounced \chə-‘kär\ as a borrowing from Hindi-Urdu but is pronounced \’chə-kər\ (just like chukker) by the folks out West who actually hunt them.
    To answer a couple of other people:
    Dotty (nice to hear from you again!): No, he gave me the separate edition. I’ll have to get a good collection.
    aldi: Her name is pronounced “proo” and is presumably of French origin. As for put the blocks to, Cassell says it goes back to the late 19th century and stems from the slang use of block to mean ‘penis.’

  10. Thanks for the link to the story, Language Hat. I’ve been thinking about it all day.

  11. And does anyone know if “stem the rose” is an established phrase or the invention of one of Proux’s characters? I’ve never heard it before. —
    >>“Twist, you guys wasn’t gettin paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose.”

  12. Googling ‘stem the rose’ and its various conjugations turns up only references to the story, so I’m guessing Proulx invented it.
    It’s apparently used in the film as well, so perhaps it’ll catch on.

  13. “Stem the rose” sounds pretty much like a reference to masturbation, and that would fit with the context (“bunch of jerk-offs…”), but it sounds very foreign. It sounds faux-cute Cockney to me, rather than something an American would think to say.
    Krummholz also sounds false. I think there is an expression in English – tanglewood? – for that type of growth. I can’t think of any probable path of transmission from Switzerland or Southern Germany to Wyoming that would make it sound natural in that setting.

  14. But it doesn’t have to sound natural “in that setting”; it’s a literary story, not an attempt to reproduce the vocabulary and usage of backcountry Wyoming. When Joyce wrote about Dublin, he didn’t limit himself to local jargon, he used the full resources of the English language, and I see no reason why Proulx isn’t entitled to do the same.

  15. I always loved the idea that the Simpsons writers used the term “duff” as the brand name for the ubiquitous beer in the show.

  16. As a Coloradan and the son of a professional forester, I grew up with “crumb-holtz.” And “duff” is indeed a term more associated with coniferous forests. It means all of the organic material (decomposed needles, chiefly) that sit on top of the non-organic “mineral soil.”
    When you build a fire line, you take your McLeod (a big heavy rake-like tool) and scrape all the duff toward the side away from the forest fire, until you are down to mineral soil.

  17. As a Coloradan and the son of a professional forester, I grew up with “crumb-holtz.”
    *does happy dance*
    Man, I love being able to get this kind of information. (And you see, Jim, they actually do use the word out there.) I shall write my lexicographical pals and suggest they correct the pronunciation. Thanks, Chas!

  18. I learned the term Krummhol[t]z on AMC trips above treeline in New Hampshire, where it is a common term. We pronounce it “Crumb-Holts”. I hadn’t heard any of the other terms you mentioned.

  19. I always assumed the Simpsons’ use of ‘Duff’ referred to ‘sitting around on your duff drinking beer’. (How did ‘duff’ come to mean ‘backside’, I wonder?)

  20. The etymology is uncertain, but it’s originally an English dialect form; the first cite in the OED is:
    ?1837 Ri-tum Ti-fum Songster 22 Lay her on her duff, then,.. her belly white to kiss.

  21. byron james says

    in regards to “stem the rose”:
    i was guessing that it meant “to get drunk”. with rose being a reference to Old Rose Whiskey. i think that is what they were drinking in the movie.

  22. Is there confusion about the meaning of “stem the rose”? it’s a reference to homosexual sex– “the rose” is a reference to the rose-esque appearance of the anus, while “stemming” refers to… well, giving the rose a stem, i.e. a penis. I’m not sure it’s really a commonly used phrase, but I have heard it before.

  23. “Stemming the Rose” is a euphemism for “struggling against love”. In the movie “Brokeback Mountain”, Jack and Ennis were hired to protect the sheep from wolves…. ie… to _stem_ the wolf attacks. Instead of stemming the wolf attacks, they stemmed the rose… which meant that they were battling against homosexual desires. Essentially, it was used to equate _being overtaken by same-sex-attraction_ to _being overtaken by a wolf attack_ …. and was used as a device to show that the boss saw them as being attacked by love.

  24. I’m sorry, but that’s an extremely strained interpretation. I’m quite sure proulxfan is correct.

  25. i also went to Google for enlightenment on “stem the rose.” My guess, which proulxfan seems to confirm is that it’s indeed a crude–and not at all thoughtful–reference to anal sex. Seems to fit the character’s demeanor.

  26. Re ‘Stem the Rose’: It is most apparent a colloquial (whether previously defined or not) term for anal intercourse. The ‘rose’ or ‘rosebud’ is indeed the anus, the ‘stem’ most apparent the penis. It would fit to serve that the term could be applied either homosexually or heterosexually as both men and women engage in this form of intercourse.
    In this film, the usage was well served, it did tend towards a ‘lighter discretion’ as opposed to a “harsher” word or description.

  27. “put the blocks to her” is a term also used in Alberta Canada, so I bet it’s just far-west idiom.
    Earl from Manitoba

  28. Jim - Utah says

    Stem the rose…. isn’t as sexual as you might think. This was posted on Urban dictionary – though not an ‘authority’ – it makes sense – haven’t checked out the reference to Shakespeare.
    Its a euphemism for “struggling against love”. In the movie “Brokeback Mountain”, Jack and Ennis were hired to protect the sheep from wolves…. ie… to _stem_ the wolf attacks. Instead of stemming the wolf attacks, they stemmed the rose… which meant that they were battling against homosexual desires. Essentially, it was used to equate _being overtaken by same-sex-attraction_ to _being overtaken by a wolf attack_ …. and was used as a device to show that the boss saw them as being attacked by love. Despite being from two families at war with each other, Romeo and Juliet were unsuccessful in their attempts to stem the rose… and love won out.

  29. Man, people sure go to extreme lengths to deny the obvious. And Urban Dictionary isn’t even in the same hemisphere as “authority”; anybody can post whatever crap they want there.

  30. Marshall - Georgia says

    I just saw the movie Brokeback and, having recovered from my initial depression brought on by the setting’s bleak and suffocating small town closeness, I fell in love with the story.
    The term “stem the rose” struck me as quite extraordinary–one of those that makes you sit up and go, “Huh?!!” when you hear it spoken in the film. I don’t think it that important to try overly hard to analyze its etymology; the line conveys the point however understated. To “stem a rose” is simply to remove its thorns to make it easier to handle or arrange as well as to make it more attractive. If there is perhaps a deeper meaning or a colloquial origin worth exploring further, so be it. I personally put it down simply to Prouxian prose by which I enjoyed the metaphor immensely as one would perhaps enjoy the imagery in a Robert Frost poem. To me the expression was as endearingly humorous as it was colorful and uncomplimentary in context.

  31. Bob Wheatley says

    Here is a word I learned from Annie Proulx, schadenfreude, enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others. This word is from the story What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick, in the collection of short stories Bad Dirt.

  32. ANNIE PROULX’s SHORT STORY is @ ennislovedjack.blogspot.com
    Think about
    (1) the absolutely chilling stair that Jack’s silver-dollar eyes shot at Joe in response to his “rosy” comment.
    Combined with
    (2)the fact that he’s refusing to rehire him after witnessing Jack and Ennis roughhousing and trying to hide a kiss.
    These 2 points show that stem the rose refers to something Joe REALly disapproves of.
    Not whiskey and definitely not feelings.
    So, the soundtrack’s pretty good…
    Anyone else seen the movie 3 or more times?

  33. Re: “Stem the rose:” Seems to me that the phrase in context could mean nothing other than getting it on sexually. Nothing about love or loss of virginity or even necessarily anality (pardon the coinage) is implied. I have to fault Ms. Proulx, however, for putting such an elegant phrase in the mouth of a hard-bitten old sheep boss; seems more appropriately used by your fastidious maiden aunt. Some explanation by Ms. Proulx would be welcome, since she appears to have created the phrase – which I for one intend to use frequently!

  34. The movie had quite a few little inside jokes and sight gags. I understood “stem the rose” to mean anal sex (as did some others of you). That’s why it was particularly funny to see them drink “Old Rose” whiskey when they were older and not getting along so well. (When they were younger, they drank whiskey from unlabeled bottles.)

  35. Re: “spurge”
    Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) — a weed brought to the U. S. from East Asia in the 1890’s — spreads like crazy, and is by now all over the Western states and moving into the mid-plains. The juice is toxic, causing blisters and blindness in humans, cattle and horses. Controlling it is capital- and time-intensive. Hi on the (long) list of ecologic/economic problems for ranchers these days.
    It was taking over the Twist place; IOW, the ranch was a poor one, maybe neglected, but anyway losing value with each passing year.

  36. Thanks, that’s very informative.

  37. carolinahoosier says

    Does anyone know of a website that helps with the pronunciations of proper names? Authors names, characters in books, names in the paper? Where does the tv news media go to get proper pronunciations of names?

  38. Regarding the phrase, “stemmed the rose,” used by Randy Quaid (character “Garry” – sp?) against Jake Gyllenhaal, when Jake (as character “Jack Twist”) comes back to him the following year seeking work (and Heath Ledger – character “Ennis”) once more: Quaid says (paraphrasing), in a very hostile, repugnant and revulsive tone of voice: “I wasn’t paying you guys to let the wolves baby-sit the sheep while the two of you … stemmed the rose.”
    “byron james at December 26, 2005 01:55 PM” – Byron’s posting here is correct. “Stemming the rose” is a direct literary figure-of-speech indicating homosexual love-making, meaning, in no uncertain terms, “inserting one’s penis” (the stem) into “the lover’s anus” (the rose). Ergo, “stemming the rose” is a very “flowery” way of stating (as noted in the “Dictionary of Gay Slang”) – “engaging in anal intercourse.” “The rose” (male anus/sphincter) is analogous to “the cherry” (female clitoris).
    Any other meanings for this phrase would be altogether secondary and contrived within the reader’s/viewer’s imagination, considering that Quaid’s character is a red-neck rough-neck, not a literary person, and certainly no “Shakespearean thespian,” educated in the use of double-entendres, metaphors or high-flown analogies. “Stemming the rose” in no uncertain terms means (being careful not to offend any of our readers here unnecessarily), “taking it up the cooler” (another metaphor for “anal intercourse”). No doubt about it. End of analysis.

  39. Please forgive me.
    I meant to credit “Posted by: proulxfan at December 27, 2005 12:50 AM” for the CORRECT interpretation of “stemmed the rose,” meaning – without a doubt (considering the character who says it – the uneducated, redneck “Garry sp?” played by Randy Quaid) – “engaged in anal sex.”

  40. But does anyone know where Proulx got the phrase about “stemming the rose”? Has it been used by any writer before? has anyone asked Her?

  41. michael farris says

    “The rose” (male anus/sphincter) is analogous to “the cherry” (female clitoris).”
    Actually the sexual meaning of ‘cherry’ (in US English) is ‘hymen’.

  42. Re: the rose
    > “does anyone know where Proulx got the phrase about “stemming the rose”? Has it been used by any writer before?”
    Dunno, but we know that Ms. Proulx lives a lot of the year in Montana, and not in a segregated development among other rich city folks either. Five gets you ten, she got the phrase from a high-plains acquaintance, of whom I guess she has plenty, high and low.

  43. Retort to Mark B’s Post:
    The freedom of interpretation, to me, is the defender of poetic license. “Meaning”, like beauty, exists (is contrived, as the author puts it) within the observer. It is preposterous, insulting, egotistical, and condemning, not to mention revolting, to suggest that “any other meanings…[are] secondary…within the reader’s/viewer’s imagination…”
    I doubt that even the author, you know, the one with the intent of delivering “meaning”, would go so far as to say that someone’s interpretation was wrong. Unenlightened? Maybe. Misguided? Perhaps. Wrong? No.
    There is truth in everything stated thus far regarding “stemming the rose”. It is colloquial. It is dialectical (although, dialect usually applies to the style of an entire work or to a group within it.) It does refer to removing thorns from the stem of a rose–ask a florist–which could be a metaphor for “making house”.
    I personally don’t think the boys were being accused of being domestic, but it works.
    Originally, I thought the phrase referred to “getting it up”–and I’m gay; but I ammended my interpretation when I started reading everyone else’s–and I certainly didn’t need to be told how to think.
    Well, that’s about it. Just a few (nitpicking) details to take care of:
    Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) is no dummy. If the boys had let the wolves babysit, they’d have been fired on the spot. He said they had let the dogs babysit.
    Joe is neither a redneck (n : a poor white person in the southern United States; source: wordnet) nor a roughneck, (member of the drilling crew; source: brokeback mountain); though, to be fair (n : a cruel and brutal fellow; source: wordnet).
    How is a direct literary figure-of-speech different from an indirect one–especially when a literary figure-of-speech is an oxymoron?
    So, back to Joe, who is not dumb, not a redneck, and not a roughneck. He is also not a Shakespearean actor, and I’m sure you meant *not* educated in the use of double entente, metaphor, or high-flown analogy: In which case, even HE wouldn’t *know* what he was saying.
    PS, even I know the cherry is the hymen.

  44. Thanks so much, Bruce, to your well written retort to Mark B’s post. Your nitpicky details are well received, especially clarification that the dogs were babysitting, not the wolves; and the hymen, not the clitoris, is the cherry. You saved me some time.

  45. to me stemming the rose is an old world statement about wasting time.
    You pull the petals off a flower till nothing is left but the stem, and you aren’t paying attention to what you should be doing.
    When ‘grandma’ said it, it meant STOP DAYDREAMING and get your chores done.
    Joe said it cause the count was too low, and by NOT paying enough attention to the sheep, he was telling Jack that they didn’t do their jobs when they were up there.

  46. Syberyenta says

    I could accept the argument for it being a reference to anal sex, but personally, I took ‘stemming the rose’ to mean masturbation, referring to the stroke of a (heavy) glove that would remove thorns and leaves from a rose — ?

  47. will cooper says

    Thank you, Syberyenta!! You have exactly the same understanding I did about it. If you think about the actual, literal action of stemming a rose, it looks more like stroking a penis. The other interpretations to get to anal sex are just too much of a reach, I think. The understanding I have had about gay sex is that it is not all about anal intercourse, any more than heterosexual sex is all about vaginal intercourse, but thats what most heterosexual people envision gay sex to be composed of. I think it was a reference to stroking the other’s persons penis.

  48. Love the dialogue. The phrase “stemming the rose” jumped out of the movie for me also, partly because I had never heard it before and partly because I thought it must have sexual connotations. Most phrases can have more than one interpretation and I like many of those posted here. I’m liking most, the definition of removing the petals and leaving the stem – wasting time – not paying attention, because of the spin this meaning would give Joe, the boss – not concerned with anything but his bottom line, sheep and profit. Not gay sex, not love, not drinking, only concerned with the job. I’ve heard that some ranchers are like that. Joe really didn’t see them having sex or drinking anyway, maybe a rough housing kiss. I guess I want at least one character to consider homosexuality irrelevant. Loved the movie. I think I’ve plucked enough petals of this blossom.

  49. kevin from willington says

    Stem the rose caught my ear too.
    It is likely to refer to anal intercourse.
    There is a French expression involving ‘the rose’
    “faire les feuilles d’une rose”
    literally it means “to make the leaves of the rose”
    figuratively it means “to give a rim job”
    ah, the French!

  50. Captain obvious says

    You guys are clueless.
    Stemming the rose means assfucking. Get a grip.

  51. appalachian_femme says

    Just wanted to say that after reading many of these posts I was a bit disappointed that so many folks seem to think that rednecks or roughnecks never know or use phrases that are literaray references. Several times, folks have insisted that the use of “stem the rose” by the trail boss could not have possibly been a reference to Shakespeare because such a fellow would have been ignorant to its origin.
    It might be true that such a fellow would be ignorant to the origin (i.e. he may not have READ Shakespeare himself or even know that Shakespeare used the phrase), but it’s entirely possible that he would still have been familiar with the phrase and the associated meanings. For years linguists have been studying my neck of the woods, Central Appalachia, precisely because many Old English and Middle English phrases remain in use there. Now, my grandmother, who never went to school and couldn’t read and write, still used some words and phrases that could be traced back to Chaucer. She herself had never read Chaucer, but because she grew up in a rural area with little outside influence and had ancestors who’d used those phrases, they were passed down to her. And although she had no idea who Chaucer was, she clearly knew what these phrases and words meant (often times in context).
    Thinking about all this as a linguist might, it’s important to remember that language is a living creature that migrates and shifts–often in ways and to places we don’t expect. I wouldn’t assume that a character like the trail boss could never know about a phrase from Shakespeare simply because of where he lives and/or his level of education. Phrases often become a part of people’s language in the most interesting ways.

  52. Excellent points!

  53. Funny, I thought that “stemmed the rose” was removing the thorns from the stem so that it becomes easier to handle; i.e., you guys took the easy way out by having the dogs tend the sheep.

  54. For a slightly different spin, that like in all great literature, would emphasize the irony of Joe’s remarks, we might see an illusion to the Song of Songs:
    “Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
    where you pasture your flock…
    I am a rose of sharon,
    a lily of the valleys,
    as a lily among brambles
    so is my love among maidens.
    (Chapter 1 verse 7
    Chapter 2 verse 1)

  55. Upon hearing the phrase “stem the rose” the first thing which came to mind is a gentleman whom I know, from the western portion of the states, who regularly says “saved my rosy red rectum”. It does follow that especially in those of us who’s anatomical highlights are pinkish in color (i.e.: rectum, nipples etc.) it is an easy analogy to refer to the anus as a rose. Also having spent some time on a ranch myself (sheep) I know how aware you can be of the shape of the anus and it’s appearance. The imagery of a stem on said rose implies anal sex.
    Several posters on this board have suggested that there is a connection to the florist trade. Having helped in a flower shop for a period in the early 80’s I did strip the thorns off of rose stems. However I do believe it is important to remember the context of the usage. We know that Shakespeare did choose to play with the language and there can be multiple definitions. Which makes more sense for a rancher from Montana in the early 60’s? How many flower shops do you think he visited? Do you believe that he would be familiar with the practice of striping thorns prior to sale or is he perhaps more likely to be using a euphemism to reference an act which he abhors?

  56. I agree with Glenn G’s post: “‘Stemming the Rose’ is a euphemism for ‘struggling against love’. In the movie ‘Brokeback Mountain’, Jack and Ennis were hired to protect the sheep from wolves…. ie… to _stem_ the wolf attacks. Instead of stemming the wolf attacks, they stemmed the rose… ”
    I read an interview with Annie Proulx, and she mentioned that she loves to play with words and metaphors. So I would suspect that her use of “stem” would have multiple meanings, both subtle and not-so-subtle. I think that Glenn G’s deeper digging of the many meanings of “stem” has significance. I’m sure Annie chose this word carefully and with much thought.

  57. Re stemming the rose – I just read in the Times Literary Supplement (Jan 13 2006) that it may also be an allusion to William Blake, I guess to “The Sick Rose” which is about sexual desire and the corruption of innocence (which would be appropriate to Aguirre’s view of the matter). Also, apparently Aguirre’s name is a reference to a Herzog movie called Aguirre: The Wrath of God, which also makes sense. So there you go – the crusty old TLS has something useful to say about newfangled motion pictures.

  58. Lieutenant Obvious says

    Get a clue, people. In the way that the sheep rancher uses the term, “stem the rose” means anal sex. Remember when Jack asked if he had no work, the rancher says, “I ain’t got no work FOR YOU.” Then when Jack asks if he had seen Ennis, the rancher says this phrase. This clearly refers to his hatred of and refusal to hire homosexuals. Also, remember his look of disgust when he saw the unshirted guys rolling on the ground? It is OBVIOUS people. Don’t think too much.

  59. Y’all are a bunch of cunning linguists.

  60. Stem the rose — could be a reference to anal intercourse…. the anus is often referred to in gay slang as a rosebud or rose and the stem could be a penis.

  61. ‘Stemming the Rose’ is a euphemism for ‘struggling against love’. I have to laugh every time I see this repeated.
    The problem with this concept is simple. The Randy Quaid character would never even think Ennis and Jack were “struggling against love” because he didn’t witness their struggle. All he witnessed was them running around shirtless and rolling on the ground and kissing.

  62. Seems like I got a lot more than I expected when I found this site after googling “stem the rose.”
    Glad to hear all sorts of interpretations…I missed it in the short story, but when Aguirre said it in the film, I, too, sat up and went, “huh?” That lead me to here, where I found lots of useful analyses. For my part, if I hadn’t looked here, I would likely have taken a much less analytical path to understanding the phrase in some loose way, like “having sex,” or “making love.” Thanks again for all the thinking I was forced to do!

  63. I agree that “stemming the rose” may have multiple meanings. But there is one thing that strongly supports the claim that the sheep rancher in Brokeback who uttered the phrase did indeed mean anal intercourse that I don’t think any of the prior posts have yet touched on: namely, the look of stone-faced mortification on Jack’s face when he heard it applied to him. Clearly he would not have been so mortified if all the phrase meant were taking the thorns off a rose, or even “struggling against love.”
    Further, from the context it seemed clear that the rancher was trying to insult Jack. It’s not much of an insult to tell someone he removed the thorns from a rose stem or that he was “struggling against love.”
    Therefore, combined with the explanation that the rose refers to the anus and the stem to the penis, I think these additional reasons are conclusive that, as used in the movie, the phrase means anal intercourse.

  64. Gosh… You guys sure have thought about that expression, huh?
    My take on it is one of the more naive posters. That’s bacause I think “stemming the rose” just means the same as “resting on one’s laurels” an the like – i.e. having a great time whilst not working. This is because I see it as removing the thorns from the rose’s stem and actually picking the rose from its stem, thus harvesting the aesthetic beauty of it.
    But that’s also because I don’t think Aguirre had reason to be antagonistic towards Jack. I don’t think he used the expression condescendingly. I think Aguirre was a voyeur who enjoyed looking at the boys frolick on the mountain, thus himself having certain issues. He did oogle them for 10 minutes before reacting, according to the short story.

  65. Another interpretation: To extrapolate on the florist-oriented meaning for “stem the rose” (remove the thorns so it’s easier to handle) — Randy Quaid’s face and tone of voice have a slight hint of mocking, specifically mocking of gay males as effeminate, therefore it is possible that he is really saying, in coded language, “Why don’t you go be a florist like homosexuals are supposed to?” That explains the mortification on Jake Gyllenhaal’s face, too.

  66. I too am unfamiliar with the expression ‘stem the rose’ and because I have only ever heard a slightly similar one, I Googled it.
    Disappointed not to find the original definition by the author but having read through all the posts, I agree with Zaheer that it may have multiple meanings and it was certainly used as an insult to Jack, who reacted accordingly, and brilliantly, I may add. But I think the suggestions that it refers to anal sex are unlkely.
    The similar expression I mentioned is ‘skin the rosebud’. This was used by one person (my then lover) who was a young serving naval officer when I was in the RAF Police, and I have never heard it since.
    ‘Skin the rosebud’ didn’t stretch my imagination too much and I have certainly never forgotten it (or indeed the ‘rosebud’ in question!), so I wondered, since ‘stem the rose’ is fairly close, whether it may be an inaccurate quotation by “Joe Aguirre”?
    What a wonderful story, though ~and film!

  67. I am still working on “stemming the rose” but I think I have solved “putting the blocks to her –Earl from Manitoba was pretty close. Partridge’s Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 1989 says: “put the blocks to” To coit with (a woman). Also “Ca 1900, there was a Canadian lumberman’s ballad, with the pertinent lines, ‘Some were fiddling, some were diddling, some were lying on the floor,/I was over in the corner putting the blocks to the Winnipeg whore’

  68. I think the phrase applies to at least two of the above interpretations: the obvious and most pertinent one, that of having anal sex; the second, “while you guys were messing around/jacking off” (i.e., not getting your work done). Also, remember that the script was written in part by Larry McMurty, who in several of his books has as the trailboss a man who is familiar with Milton, the Bible, Greek and Latin.

    I think we’re not going to get too much further on this (usage origin/etymology of “stemmed the rose”) unless Annie Proulx can be persuaded to enlighten us. The closest I have ever heard is, as I said in an earler post, ‘skin the rosebud’, but unquestionably that did not mean anal sex.
    While I have lived in London and other equally cosmopolitan cities, and travelled extensively as part of the global gay community for many years, I have never heard ‘stem the rose’ used anywhere; nor seen it in print until I read the short story of BBM.
    The phrase has unexpected elegance ~perhaps too much, causing the remark to jump off the page. Secondly, it is excessively precious for “Joe Aguirre” and therefore apparently out of character. He could have chosen many far more earthy and graphic linguistic devices in English to describe sexual intercourse between men. In my view, the imagery of ‘stem the rose’ is, shall we say, inadequately specific. Interestingly, especially in the film it did not spring easily from Aguirre’s mouth, which I suspect is why it jarred and so many noticed it.
    In any event, there seems little point in arguing the toss about the forensics of the meaning when the existing evidence is so scanty.
    Isn’t it marvellous, though, that such an inconsequential aside inserted as the writer’s comment to break up Ennis and Jack’s only substantial conversation, has stimulated so many to join your forum?!
    Hats off to you, languagehat.com. More power to your elbow!
    *(L. the clamour of the forum)

  70. huh@huh.com says

    Of course it refers to using a thorn stripper, slang for getting off.
    Sure there’s symbolism in the phrase, but strictly speaking that is all the character meant by it.

  71. Enough about “stemming the rose”.. I have a technical question about when Jack and Ennis got together that first time in the tent. Ennis flipped Jack over, pulled down his jeans, unbuckled his own pants and before he “entered” Jack, he licked his own hand for lubrication. Is that specific gesture a “gay” habit or just a “man-thing” to do?

  72. I like the etymology of names. “Ennis” is Celtic/Gaelic for “island” and “del mar” means “of the sea.” So of course that make me think of John Donne’s “No man is an island.” Also, “Ennis” backward is “sinne,” which is how the word sin was spelled in English back in Donne’s day.
    Jack Twist reminded me of Oliver Twist, but Ennis is the literal orphan. Jack is an emotional orphan, however.
    Just some thoughts.

  73. Hey, that’s great — I should have thought of the ‘island’ thing, but it went right over my head. Thanks!

  74. He didn’t lick his hand – he spat on it. And it’s a typical man-thing to do. Anal requires some lubrication, and spit is as good as any, but it takes more than a quick lick.
    My question is, what was Jack doing during this that looks (and sounds) like he’s trying to hit Ennis? I thought maybe he was trying to grab his hand for a reach-around, but the picture isn’t terribly clear, and the sound is definitely a few sharp thwocks.
    What’s going on with this?

  75. ESTEBE VERDE says

    Hello One and All~
    “Stem the Rose” is indeed nothing more than a way to say pushed in the shyter.
    It does infact refer to anal intercourse.
    In this case hmosexual anal intercourse.

  76. I wonder what Estebe Verde’s authority was for stating so categorically, “‘Stem the rose’ does in fact refer to homosexual anal intercourse”?
    None of the other posts on this site has been able specify an authority ~ but perhaps he hasn’t read them all.
    On the other hand, Estebe Verde’s vocabulary is obviously far richer and more extensive than mine or indeed that of the ‘non-formal’ section of my American Thesaurus. This makes no mention of ‘shyter’, an ugly-looking word which I trust will not find its way into the mouths of the civilised and I hope does not find its way into general use.
    I don’t want to appear too po-faced as I usually welcome new language usage and styles of expression, but this is one we could certainly exist without.

  77. You are funny, “Ben Dover”, and clever – i.e. “cunning linguists” 🙂 or is that not original with you? … first time I’ve heard it, though…
    (see above:
    Ben Dover says:
    February 5, 2006 at 1:14 am
    Y’all are a bunch of cunning linguists).

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