Once, I was changing a flat tire on Highway 90 south of Valentine. A breeder stopped to help me finish the job. As he was leaving, I asked him, “How far to Marfa?” He casually turned his hand south and said, “Oh, not far.” Just down the road a bit. Everything about his gesture and tone would have made a less experienced person in West Texas believe that Marfa was just over the next hill. But I knew how to translate this vernacular. I wasn’t surprised when that “just a little bit” turned into 40 miles.
Something that doesn’t get a lot of attention in Texas, as an integral part of Texan culture, is the common use of euphemisms. We’re used to being seen as exaggerators, great storytellers – like Pecos Bill who roped tornadoes and pulled stars out of the sky. We have a lot of great tales based on mythical exaggeration.
I’ve always liked Pecos Bill, but I also liked the opposite kind of cowboy, like the one who climbed the Grand Canyon, unexpectedly, for the first time, and said, “Well, he something happened here. It is as if he knows the old journalistic principle “the biggest, the smallest”.
Bum Phillips, the famous cowboy coach of the Houston Oilers, was a brilliant underrated.
When asked if Earl Campbell was alone in a class, he replied, “I don’t know if he’s alone in a class, but I know when this class meets he rolls around.”
The understatement is oblique. He arrives unexpectedly, glancing down the unnoticed side of things. To paraphrase Jane Friedman, “Underestimation gives you less so that you feel more. “
The great Darrell Royal took his UT Longhorns to play for the National Championship against No.2 Arkansas in 1969. He saw a church sign near Little Rock that said, “Don’t throw your balls. steers before pigs. ” Royal joked: “I had hoped God would be neutral.”
When I remember the westerns that I love the most, the underestimation is present in these films. Take “Shane”, for example. He was a shooter who didn’t carry a lot of guns and never bragged about himself. He was calm, reserved and on the whole low-key. When asked if he knew how to shoot, he replied, almost inaudibly, “Little bit.”
The understatement is a delicious trope in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. They continually tease each other with fake reviews disguised as understatements. At the end of the movie, Butch rushes through a glove of dozens of Feds who shoot him to retrieve the ammo from the mule bags. Sundance covers it impressively, knocking out at least ten Feds. Nevertheless, they are both seriously injured and momentarily collapse to safety inside the bank. Butch says to Sundance, “Is that what you call covering up?” Sundance responds, “Is that what you call running?” If I knew you were going to hang out … “
And who can forget the best moment of “Lonesome Dove” when Captain Woodrow F. Call explains his violent plague to stunned townspeople with these words: “I hate a man’s rude behavior. I won’t tolerate it. The army scout’s behavior and his own response were both grossly underestimated.
The great attraction of Larry McMurtry is the underestimation as a literary style. His characters use the device over and over again. Long Bill Coleman, when telling Gus and Woodrow he is leaving the Rangers on “Dead Man’s Walk,” says, “It’s a rare sport, but it’s not entirely safe.”
Mark Twain wrote great stories of the Old West, but he was also a master of understatement. Remember his famous response to reports of his death which he claimed to have been greatly exaggerated. This is perhaps the only case in which the word exaggerated has been used as a euphemism. Now that’s genius.
The real cowboys I knew as a child weren’t often exaggerators; Most of them were modest, soft-spoken guys, “ah shucks” guys who mostly pretended that the amazing thing they just did was okay. This ethic has been taught, at least culturally, and it has permeated you. “Don’t sound your own horn.” I think that’s why resumes and business reviews are so difficult for a lot of those who have grown up this way. They feel uncomfortable listing all the awesome things they’ve done to put it mildly. It goes against the cowboy way.
As my dad always used to say, “If you’re smart, successful, or talented, you don’t need to tell people, they’ll know.” But he also advised that if you are to promote yourself, you should do it with unadorned truth so that you are not shameless. “And that’s okay,” he said, “because, as Will Rogers said, ‘If you did, it’s not bragging.’