Cowboy Rub

From Tara Narcross-Wyckoff, a supermarket scene:

Two points of linguistic interest here: the noun rub; and the semantics of N + N compounds X rub. (Several observers have speculated on possibly raunchy interpretations of the product name Cowboy Rub. I’ll get to that.)

The noun rub. The verb rub has been nouned many times in a variety of senses; two families of these are relevant here: an act sense and a substance sense.

The act sense: OED3 (March 2011) gives ‘an act or spell of rubbing’ as its fifth main entry, with a 1618 first cite, and with the specialized sub-sense ‘a massage; a rub-down’ (first cite 1879).

Not in the OED are sexual senses of the noun, though it has some sexual uses of the verb, in particular the slang intransitive rub ‘to masturbate’ (Farmer & Henley’s slang dictionary in 1903) and phrasal rub up transitive ‘to touch or caress (a person, a part of the body) in order to excite sexually (from 1656) and transitive ‘to masturbate; (also) to rub oneself on a person or thing in a sexually arousing manner’ (Farmer & Henley).

But there’s more, not in the OED. There’s also the transitive verb in rub someone off ‘masturbate someone’ and the plain verb rub (transitive or intransitive) referring to masturbation or frottage. And then the related noun rub ‘act of masturbation or frottage’, notably in the compound Princeton rub (in various slang dictionaries), referring to male-male frottage, especially genital-genital rubbing or intercrural frottage (between the legs) (from lore about sex at Princeton before the days of coeducation).

And (from Urban Dictionary), various uses of dry rub for sex without lubrication, including the Youngstown dry rub ‘intergluteal frottage’ (between the buttocks) (a claimed allusion to practices at Youngstown State Penitentiary in Ohio) and the Alabama dry rub ‘anal sex without lubrication’ (source unclear). More sexual senses of dry rub below.

I turn now to substance senses of the noun rub: ‘a substance rubbed on something’ in general. OED3 has only one specialized use in this domain: ‘an ointment or (esp.) liniment that is rubbed on the body for therapeutic purposes’ (from 1867) (think of Vick’s Vapo-Rub). But there is also a culinary use, in (dry) spice rub, often abbreviated just to rub. From Wikipedia:

Spice rub is any mixture of ground spices that is made for the purpose of being rubbed on raw food before the food is cooked. The spice rub forms a coat on the food. The food can be marinated in the spice rub for some time for the flavors to incorporate into the food or it can be cooked immediately after it is coated in the rub. The spice rub can be left on or partially removed before cooking.

This is the sense in the supermarket shot above, showing several of the McCormick Company’s dry rubs, sold under the product name Grill Mates: From the McCormick site:

Our Dry Rubs do double duty: They add a robust flavor and delicious crust while sealing in natural juices.

There are nine varieties:

(1) Applewood Rub, Chicken Rub, Cowboy Rub, Pork Rub, Slow & Low Memphis Pit BBQ Rub, Slow & Low Smokin’ Texas BBQ Rub, Slow & Low Tennessee Smokehouse BBQ Rub, Steak Rub, Sweet & Smoky Rub.

I’ll get to this list in just a moment, but first, one more remark on sexual act nouns, prompted by entries in the Urban Dictionary — not at all a reliable source of lexical information, I must grant — for Memphis Dry Rub ‘hand job without lubrication’ (surely related to Memphis as a locale for barbeque and grilling) and the preposterous, and painful, Kansas City Dry Rub ‘hand job performed with cayenne pepper’ (with Kansas City as another barbeque/grilling locale).

X rub composites.Now, on the semantic relationship between the head noun rub and the first element in the composite.

Object of the rubbing. The supermarket shot shows Chicken Rub and Pork Rub, and (1) has Steak Rub as well — all N+N compounds in which the first element refers to the food on which the spices are rubbed. This is a canonical sort of N + N compound, parallel (except for the semantic complexity of rub) to compounds like linguistics book ‘book on linguistics’.

The McCormick folks clearly did not intend this interpretation for Cowboy Rub, though rubbing dry spices on a cowboy is an entertaining idea.

Ingredient in the rub. Another canonical sort of N + N compound, seen in examples like cherry pie. In (1) we see it, in a very complex form, in Applewood Rub. From the McCormick site:

This smoky, savory and slightly sweet blend of spices, peppers, garlic and applewood smoke flavor [from the wood of apple trees] gives meat a bold, flavorful crust that seals in juices.

Rub generously on meat before grilling (about 2 tablespoons per 1 pound). Great on chicken, pork, beef, salmon or shrimp.

[Added 8/26/14: commenters on Facebook entertained the ingredient interpretation for Cowboy Rub, with amusement. Michael Palmer: “I assume it’s made from locally sourced, free range cowboys.” Ned Deily: “Only for certified organic cowboy rub. The generic McCormick rub is made from Jersey cowboys: Pauly, Vinny, etc.” Frank McQuarry: “It comes with spurs and assless chaps that will fit any size roast, right?”]

Characteristic location/source of the rub. Roughly paraphrasable as ‘a rub in the manner / fashion of this location / source’. This analysis applies to some of the act nouns, notably Princeton rub, but also to complex cases in (1), alluding to Memphis, Texas, and Tennessee. You need to supply some considerable cultural knowledge to make full sense of these cases.

Cowboy Rub is somewhat similar to these, with its (intended) interpretation as something like ‘a rub of the sort that cowboys use on meat’. The ingredients and uses, from McCormick:

Cowboy Rub is a robust blend with coarsely ground peppers, mustard seed and coffee which gives meat a bold and flavorful crust that seals in natural juices.

Rub generously on meat before grilling (1 to 2 tablespoons per 1 pound). Great on steak, chicken, pork or ribs.

Of course, cowboy rub could also be a (sexual) act noun, referring to masturbation or frottage the way cowboys do it, or the way it’s done on cowboys. Hence the chuckles.

(For completeness: Sweet & Smoky Rub in (1) is an Adj + N composite, rather than a N + N compound, but they’re very close.)

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