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Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, first edition (1908) has this entry for broncho:

Broncho (brŏn´kō), n. {Sp. bronco rough, wild.} A native or a Mexican horse of small size. {Western U.S.}

Four entries later, the same dictionary has this item:

Bronco n. Same as BRONCHO.

From this treatment it appears that the dictionary in 1908 regarded broncho as the primary English spelling and bronco as a variant. (Indeed, Webster's Academic Dictionary [1895] has the identical entry for broncho, but no mention of bronco at all.)

A century later, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) has the following entry for bronco:

bronco also broncho n, pl broncos also bronchos {MexSp, fr. Sp, lit., rough, wild} (1850) : BRONC

and this entry for bronc:

bronc n {short for bronco} (1893) : an unbroken or imperfectly broken range horse of western No. America; broadly : MUSTANG

I have three questions:

  1. Is bronc now the primary term and spelling in English for bronc/bronco/broncho?

  2. When and under what circumstances did each of these three terms enter English?

  3. How did the Spanish word bronco come to acquire the h in the spelling broncho in English (even though the word, according to Merriam-Webster, retained the hard-k sound of bronco)?

The information that I collected on questions 1, 2, and 3 during the course of my own research, though somewhat incomplete in every case, is detailed and interesting enough to encourage me to submit it as a partial answer, which I will do shortly.


Here is what the Ngram chart for bronc (green line), bronco (blue line), and broncho (red line) for the years 1820–2005 looks like:

Unfortunately, the Ngram chart results are badly skewed by many false positives for broncho (and bronc), attributable to the Ngram tool's tendency to treat hyphens as letter spaces, which results in many matches for broncho that turn out to be references to (for example) broncho-pneumonia.

  • 3
    As a Texan, I've never heard "broncho"... only "bronco" as in "bucking bronco"... and I think I've heard rodeo people just call them "broncs"... but never "broncho". – Catija Jun 12 '15 at 6:56
  • 1
    Yes, we always hear it that way. But in the earlier citations by OP, dictionaries said it was spelled broncho, but pronounced bronko. But I've never seen it spelled with an H. Until today, I didn't know that it ever was spelled that way. It seems downright peculiar. But maybe no more peculiar than "hoosegow" from juzgado. – Brian Hitchcock Jun 12 '15 at 7:31
  • That would make it sort of Italian... if the H wasn't pronounced. I somehow missed that part of the question, regardless... I've never seen "broncho", either. – Catija Jun 12 '15 at 8:07
  • @Catija: For a number of years I've been aware of broncho as a variant spelling in older writings (nineteenth and early twentieth century), but I certainly never heard anyone pronounce the word with the "ch" as in "church." (I'm a native Texan, too—grew up in Corpus Christi and Houston.) – Sven Yargs Jun 12 '15 at 8:07
  • 1
    When I read the title, I thought a broncho must be a special kind of poncho worn in particular by bros … (@Catija It would make it sort of Greek, really, since Greek is the only source language where ⟨ch⟩ = /k/ is frequently used in English before non-front vowels. Italian only uses ⟨ch⟩ before front vowels.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 12 '15 at 8:10
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1. Is 'bronc' now the primary term in the bronc/bronco/broncho series of variants?

Merriam-Webster’s decision to put the main definition of the term under the bronc entry took effect in the Ninth Collegiate Dictionary (1983). Both the Seventh Collegiate (1963) and the Eighth Collegiate (1973) have this brief entry for bronc:

bronc n : BRONCO

and this longer one for bronco:

bronco n pl. broncos : an unbroken or imperfectly broken range horse of western No. America; broadly : MUSTANG

But the Ninth Collegiate (1983) reverses field, reducing the entry for bronco to

bronco n pl. broncos : BRONC

and moving what had been definition under bronco to the bronc entry. The Sixth Collegiate (1949) hadn’t included an entry for bronc at all, though (unlike its successors) it had included one for broncho as a “var of BRONCO.” The wording “bronco also broncho” in the entry for bronco (cited in the question above) first appears in the Tenth Collegiate (1993).

In contrast, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has consistently maintained bronco as the primary spelling of the term. The first edition of AHDEL (1971) doesn’t mention bronc at all and refers to broncho only within the entry for bronco:

bronco n. pl. -cos. Also broncho. A wild or semi-wild horse or pony of Western North America.

The third edition (1992) of AHDES again omits bronc and this time omits broncho, too. The fourth edition (2000) adds a brief entry for bronc:

bronc n. A bronco

but it retains the main definition at bronco (again, with no mention of broncho).

The Random House College Dictionary (1984) has entries for both bronc and broncho, but gives only a single-word definition for each: “bronco.” Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1987) identifies only bronco as a word. The Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus (2003) has this for bronc:

bronc n. colloq. = BRONCO {abbr.}

but nothing for broncho, and a full entry for bronco. And finally, Encarta World English Dictionary (1999) has

bronc n. a bronco (informal)

and

broncho n. = bronco

before giving a full definition in its entry for bronco.


Conclusion: The way the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary series and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language have handled bronc, bronco, and broncho over the past half-century—along with the snapshot instances from four other dictionaries—yields a strong sense that Merriam-Webster is the odd lexicographer out in its preference for bronc over bronco. Since MW doesn’t explain why it shifted its primary definition of the term from the entry for bronco to the entry for bronc in 1983, we have no way of knowing what its reasoning was. But no other dictionary has followed MW’s lead on this point—nor done anything in subsequent years beyond including an entry for bronc as a variant of bronco.

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2. Earliest occurrences in English of the words ‘bronc,’ ‘bronco,’ and ‘bronco’

Merriam-Webster gives first occurrence dates of 1893 for bronc and 1850 for bronco. Unfortunately it doesn’t provide a citation for either date. I’ve found an 1889 instance of bronc, but the best I’ve been able to uncover for the others is 1861 (for broncho) and 1865 (for bronco). My older (1971) Compact Edition OED lists only the spelling bronco and gives a much-too-late first-occurrence date for that word of 1883 (from Harper’s Magazine, with the spelling broncho). Here are the details of my investigation.


bronc

The earliest Google Books match for bronc (or bronc’) is, somewhat surprisingly, from Lynn D’Oyle, “Up on Deer Creek,” a Wild West tale written for The [London] Gentleman’s Magazine (April 1889):

Happening to look up the little valley again, shortly afterwards, they saw coming down into it an elk, “And a fine old bull, too,” said Shorty. “He’s going down to the ‘lick,’ and it wouldn’t be any trouble to get him ; if you laid fat down on your ‘bronc,’ ten to one he’d let you get right up to him—they’re commencing to ‘run’ now, and, like a man when he’s in love, they ain’t overburdened with sense this time o’ year.”

”It’s a broncho,” put in Frank, “and he’s got a saddle on.”

”The horse took his own gait home ; I felt as though I couldn’t raise a foot to spur him ; through all that happened after, I never felt as bad as I did just then. … It was a clear, still night : when the 'bronc's' hoof struck a rock it made an echo ; and sometimes when he trod on a large dead stick and broke it, the ' crack ' made two. …”

All five occurrences of bronc’ in this story occur in the course of speech by a character named Shorty. That the author considers the word to be a short from of broncho is clear not merely from the occurrence of broncho in Frank’s speech (quoted above), but from the fact that D’Oyle uses the word broncho (but not bronc or bronco) in an earlier story for the January 1889 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine.

The 1893 instance that Merriam-Webster cites as the first occurrence of bronc is probably from the pen of Theodore Roosevelt, but the citation could be to either of two publications: “On the Cattle Ranges” and “In Cowboy Land” both of which are included in The Wilderness Hunter (1893). The latter also appears in The Century Magazine (June 1893).


broncho

John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, fourth edition (1877) has this entry for broncho:

Broncho. A native California horse.

[Citation:] If low in purse, [the miner] traverses the mountains on foot ; but, if able to own an animal, he has a broncho (native or Californian) pony, mule, jack on which he carries his outfit, consisting of grub, pan, spade, blanket, and revolver. —McClure, The Rocky Mountains, p. 319

[Citation:] The emigrants travelled in an old wagon, drawn by a pair of broncho or native horses, and would probably be six or eight months on the road {to Missouri}. —Nordhoff’s California, p. 138

The original example from McClure, Three Thousand Miles Through the Rocky Mountains (1869) reads as follows:

The placer “prospecter” is the pioneer in the development of the precious metals. If low in purse, he traverses the mountains on foot; but, if able to own an animal, he has a “broncho” (native or California pony), mule, or jack, on which he carries his “outfit,” consisting of “grub,” pan, spade, blanket, and revolver; and he will thus travel hundreds of miles in search of “new diggings.”

The Charles Nordhoff reference is to California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence (1872), which reads as follows:

Near San Diego a Pike [that is, “a wandering gypsy-like Southern poor white”] family was pointed out to me, who had removed from Texas to California, and back to Texas, four times. They were now going back home again to please “the old woman,” who, it seems, had had a fit a fit of home-sickness. They traveled in an old wagon drawn by a pair of broncho or native horses, and would probably be six or eight months on the road. Of course they lived off the country, and probably lived as well on their travels as when they were settled.

By far the earliest Google Books reference to broncho, however is in “The Coast Rangers,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (October 1861):

With a wild yell and a few adroit exploits of the Broncho, which he compelled to charge and retreat, rear up on the hind legs and dance over the sand in a strikingly miraculous manner, Captain Toby appeared at the scene of the disaster, and demanded what he could do to serve the great cause of suffering humanity.

Both here and in the subsequent serialized adventures of Captain Toby in the December 1861 and February 1862 issues of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, it is clear that "the Broncho" is the name of Captain Toby's horse. The word is not used generically in these stories, except to the extent that in one episode the author refers to "Captain Toby's Broncho, or wild horse."

The earliest match for broncho in the Library of Congress newspaper database appears in an article titled from “From the Army,” in the [Virginia City] Montana Post, (May 25, 1867):

One of the horses gave out here [at Hot Springs Ranch] and we were compelled to leave it. All the other horses are behaving nobly, no at all like wild broncho’s, but more like regular drilled cavalry horses, and I don’t believe that there is a man in Co. “A” who would now trade his broncho for any of your Virginia fancy cayuses.

The Library of Congress finds three other instances of broncho in other issues of the Montana Post over the next two years. In addition to these, the [Prescott, Arizona] Miner (March 27, 1870) has an unusual instance in which the term “broncho savage” appears, seemingly with the meaning “wild [and horseless] Indian”:

From Camp Verde

Captain Cauffman Captures a Live Indian—The Wagon-Road, Farming, Etc.

Dr. Smith, Wales Arnold, Frank Murray, Jos. Melvin, and others arrived here Monday last, from the Verde, and departed Wednesday last. From them e learn that Captain Cauffman and command, Company E, of the 8th Cavalry, recently captured a broncho savage, in the vicinity of Fossil Creek, and took him to Camp Verde.


bronco

Although Merriam-Webster reports an instance of bronco, in the sense of semiwild animal, in English dating to 1850, I couldn't find anything within ten years of that date for any of the spellings bronc, bronco, or broncho.

In the Library of Congress newspaper database, the [Virginia City] Montana Post, which two years later began spelling broncho with an h (as reported above), had this item in its issue of August 5, 1865:

Seventeen California miners, from Copperopolis, passed through town yesterday morning, en route to Montana Territory. They rode on horses, and packed their grub on a species of ye equine called “broncos.” They say that times are dull as death in Alturas county, California, and hence their thirty-three days trip to this place, to turn up towards “better diggings” in the northland.—Vedette

And again, in the same newspaper, under the heading “Helena Items” (September 25, 1865):

Abundance of hay, grain and garden vegetables are being hauled in every day, showing that the devastating army of grasshoppers have not destroyed everything, as the “croakers” would have us believe. Many new stores, warehouses, restaurants and places of refreshment, greeted our eyes as we executed our first promenade through town, the individual mention of which is prohibited by space. Travis, the Rarey of Montana, still persists in selling wild “broncos,” to the infinite amusement of the large crowds, attracted by his noisy and humorous descriptions of the merits of the animals auctioned.

The earliest Google Books match for bronco occurs in “The Backbone of America,” in The Penn Monthly (June 1870):

We must supply ourselves with riding animals, and have a choice between three kinds of horses, the American, Indian pony and Bronco. The first is a larger horse than the others, gentle, stout of limb, and, if grain fed, will do heavier work than they. The Indian pony is small, lithe and active, tough as India rubber, and possesses the great advantage over the American horse that he will improve on hard work and what grass he can pick up from the prairie during a few hours’ halt. There is a great difference of opinion as to what a Bronco is. Some persons use the term indiscriminately of Mexican horses and Indian ponies, but this is clearly wrong. A Bronco is, strictly speaking, any horse which is “wild,” (that being the definition of the word,) but it is used out here [in Wyoming territory] more frequently of a particular breed of horse which is a cross between the Indian pony and the Mexican, American, or some other breed.


Conclusion: The earliest matches in English for the three terms that I could find are 1861 (for broncho), 1865 (for bronco), and 1889 (for bronc). I would not be at all surprised if the term was in use before the 1850 date that Merriam-Webster has cited as the earliest occurrence in English that it is aware of.

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3. Why the ‘h’ in ‘broncho’?

The earliest discussion of how to pronounce the word broncho yields a (to me) surprising result. From Maximilian Schele De Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872):

The word [stampede] was first used of the herds of cattle and mustangs, which were so common in the North of Mexico, then applied to every drove, and to the horses, mules, and bronchos, as the packhorses are called (pronouncing the ch as in chocolate) ; but it is now employed to denote any sudden fright, which starts a drove of animals on a wild flight, or a start given them by thievish Indians and white outlaws, who wish to possess themselves of the more valuable part of the drove.

To similar effect is John Farmer, Americanisms—Old & New (1889):

BRONCHO (Pronounce “ch” as in church). The native horse of California, a somewhat tricky and uncertain quadruped. The term is familiarly applied to horses that buck and show other signs of vice. Of gentle deportment and modest mien, there is really not a safe place about him. There is nothing mean about a broncho, though ; he is perfectly reasonable and acts on principle. All he asks is to be let alone, but he does ask this and even insists on it. He is firm in this matter, and no kind of argument can shake his determination. … The Spanish signification of the word is rough and crabbed little beast, and in truth he deserves this name.

On the other hand, we have the hard-k pronunciation specified for broncho in Webster’s International Dictionary (1890), which is the source of the pronunciation and definition of the word given in Webster’s Academic Dictionary (1896) and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, first edition (1898) both cited in the question above.

It seems noteworthy that none of the (admittedly few) Spanish-language newspapers in the Library of Congress database ever use the word broncho (or bronchos). In contrast, from Santa Fe [New Mexico] Weekly Gazette (May 31, 1856), we have this early example of broncos:

El Gefe sin embargo no desistió, llegó a la laguna, apesar que toda su remonta estaba inservible, atacó a los Indios matando dos, tomando un cautivo y unos 60 animales broncos.

My iffy attempt at a translation (with considerable, but patchy help from various online translation services):

The Chief however didn't give up, arrived at the lagoon, even though all of his cavalry horses were useless, attacked the Indians killing two, [and] taking a captive and approximately 60 rough [or half-tame] animals.


Conclusion: The origin of broncho and its uneasy coexistence with bronco are difficult to disentangle. Merriam-Webster asserts that bronco came into English in 1850—but it doesn’t provide a citation to corroborate that assertion. The first Google Books instance of either word is from October 1861, but in that case and in later chapters from the same serialized work, all references to the term involve a horse’s familiar name Broncho.

The next two instances of the term arise in a Virginia City, Montana, newspaper in 1865, where the spelling is given as bronco. But two years later, the same newspaper consistently uses the spelling broncho.

Another complication is the pronunciation of the ch in broncho, which reference works from 1872 and 1889 gives as the ch sound in chocolate or church, but which Webster’s International Dictionary in 1890 (like all subsequent Merriam-Webster dictionaries) gives as a hard K sound.

Strictly as a matter of speculation, I suspect that the U.S. border regions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California had enough interaction with Spanish-speaking fellow citizens and with Mexicans that the spelling and pronunciation bronco were frequently reinforced. For people far away from the border, however there was no such natural corrective, which might lead to popularization of the selling (and pronunciation) broncho catching on and lingering among English speakers who had no native familiarity with the word.

I'm still baffled by the unexpected development in 1890, however, when Merriam-Webster endorsed broncho as the primary spelling of the term while endorsing "brŏn´kō" as the pronunciation.

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