Democrats “have gone loco, they have gone loco,” President Trump told a crowd in Tennessee on October 1. He added, for the benefit of monolingual listeners: “They have gone crazy.” Earlier that day, at a White House press conference, he had used the same word to disparage another group on his enemies list:
“They’re loco,” he said of the media. “I use that word because of that fact that we made a trade deal with Mexico.”
Two days earlier, Trump had tested “loco” at a West Virginia rally, saying the Democratic Party was “so far left, Pocohantas” – his often-invoked slur for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren – “is considered conservative.” The Democrats “have gone crazy. They’ve gone loco.”
And on October 10 Trump wielded his new favorite adjective against the Federal Reserve Bank.
His full comment, in an interview with Fox News: “The Fed is going wild. I mean, I don’t know what their problem is that they are raising interest rates and it’s ridiculous. The Fed is going loco, and there’s no reason for them to do it. I’m not happy about it.”
Faster than a speeding locomotive, reporters were turning “loco” against its source. “Donald Trump’s Loco Attack on the Federal Reserve” was the headline on an article by staff writer John Cassidy in the New Yorker online. (Cassidy’s conclusion: “Rather than acting strategically and respecting an institutional setup that, generally speaking, has served the country well, [Trump] went loco.”) Washington Post opinion writer Catherine Rampell observed that “Trump’s arm-twisting of the Fed is what’s truly ‘loco’.”
That’s a lot of “loco” for a single fortnight, and the reasons for its sudden surge are unclear. Trump often has trouble stringing together a coherent sentence in his native English, and he has no history of demonstrating admiration for the Spanish language or its speakers. (In the only other example I can recall of his using Spanish, he called for deporting “bad hombres” during an October 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. He mispronounced “hombres” as “hambres,” which means “hungers.”) Is Trump a fan of Marcelo “El Loco” Bialsa, the Argentine-born soccer coach now managing Leeds United? Doubtful. Was the recent Spanish incursion was influenced by “Loco,” a new track by Machine Gun Kelly released in August of this year?
Instead of trying to scrute the inscrutable, let’s look at “loco” in its native and adopted environments. The Spanish etymology of “loco,” which for centuries has meant “insane” or “mad,” is uncertain; it isn’t related to the Latin “loco” of, say, in loco parentis or “locomotive,” where “loco” means “from a place.” The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests a connection to Arabic lauqa, the feminine form of ’alwaq, a fool or crazy person.
“Loco” began appearing in American English, especially in the West and Southwest, in the 1840s, where there were longstanding Spanish and Mexican settlements. Some sources trace it to “locoweed,”a generic term for plant species that cause irreversible neurological damage to livestock; the effects are known as locoism. A Wikipedia entry notes that in Spain, “loco/a” is attached to the names of plants that don’t cause locoism but do have a “rambling” habit, such as chocho loco (rambling lupine). The Dictionary of the American West (2001) notes that “loco” can be a verb, as in“to let something loco you.”
“Loco” spread into general American slang through popular cowboy fiction and, later, movies. (It also turns up in Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel Nostromo, which is set in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana: “He was old, ugly, learned—and a little ‘loco’—mad, if not a bit of a sorcerer.”) It was frequently modified in folksy ways: “plumb loco,” “a li’l loco,” “shore [sure] loco.”
Shore enough, “loco” eventually made its way into brand names. The oldest “loco” trademark in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database, is El Pollo Loco, which filed for trademark protection in 1981.
El Pollo Loco (“the crazy chicken”) promotion, summer 2017. Juan Francisco Ochoa opened the original El Pollo Loco in Sinaloa, Mexico, in the mid-1970s; he expanded into California in 1980. He sold the U.S. chain in 1983 and still owns the Mexican restaurants.
Ben & Jerry’s briefly sold Cocoa Loco “chocolate cereal milk” ice cream. It has been discontinued.
El Sushi Loco began as a food cart in 2010 and opened a first brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2011. There are now two El Sushi Loco locations in Southern California.
There’s a town called Loco in Oklahoma. Not so crazy, says OKHistory.org: “Although popular theory often ascribes the naming of the town to the locoweed, local historians attribute the name to the Latin word meaning ‘being in this place.’ Dr. Albert G. Cranfill, an early settler in the area, chose the name as the community was a popular meeting site.”
In Southern California Latino communities, “la vida loca” – the crazy life – was (and maybe still is) synonymous with gang membership. A 1993 feature film directed by Allison Anders, in which Salma Hayek and Jason Lee made their first film appearances, was titled Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life).
And who can forget Ricky Martin’s earworm-ish 1999 hit “La Vida Loca”? You certainly won’t forget it now.