Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book: The Cowboy Humor of Alfred Henry Lewis, part 3

Today I play Word Detective and offer a glossary of the colorful and whimsical language used by the Old Cattleman in Alfred Henry Lewis’ sketches from Wolfville, his fictional town in southeast Arizona, circa 1880.

I had to search high and low for the meanings of most of these terms. Ramon Adams’ The Cowboy Dictionary was a help, and where that reference failed, I went online and found many at Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and Some just plain threw me.

I’ve attempted to create some order by putting them in groups. If reading a glossary is not your idea of fun, here are a few words to whet your curiosity: larrup, jodarter, fan-tods, air-tights, clanjamfry, ranikaboo, pirooting, bazoo, dornick, hewgag, skew-gee, and wamus.

cooper = to spoil, ruin
crawfish = to back down, renege on a previous statement
dragging a rope/lariat = said of a woman on the lookout for a husband
drop one’s watermelon = make a serious mistake
lam = beat, thrash
larrup = strike, thrash
saw off = dispose of

Complementary terms
coony = sharp-witted, shrewd
jodarter = something or someone unsurpassed
sand = courage

brunkled up = uncomfortably confined
fan-tods = nervous upset, fits

Death and dying
beef = kill (for food)
peter = die
quit out = die
too dead to skin = dead for a long time, unquestionably dead

forty drops = a reference to alcohol, maybe also related to laudanum and opium; there was a popular rag tune called “Forty Drops” from the 1890s (40 drops equal ½ teaspoon)
Ganymede = barkeeper (cup bearer to Zeus)
nosepaint = liquor
Old Jordan = liquor of no particular quality
Valley Tan = liquor distilled from wheat and potatoes

air-tights = canned goods, e.g. tomatoes, peaches, milk
burgoo = meat and vegetable stew
salt-hoss = horsemeat preserved in salt

check-rack = gambling term for all the money in the “bank”
copper = in the game of faro, to bet that someone else’s bet will lose  (metaphorically, to discourage)
freeze-out = game of poker, played until one player has won all the stakes
from soda to hock = from first to last card (faro), i.e., the whole thing
hock card = the last card in the box in a game of faro (metaphorically, a culmination)
seven-up = card game for 2 or 3 players or 4 playing as partners (cf. pitch)

Insulting terms
clanjamfry = a rabble, crowd of people
hold-up = outlaw
jack-leg = unscrupulous, dishonest, unprofessional
jimcrow = low-class, disreputable
ranikaboo = nonsense; irksome
shorthorn = inexperienced person, newcomer, beginner

bulge in = to intrude, appear suddenly
curve = move purposefully
hit the high places = cover ground at top speed
jump sideways = do something unexpected or unusual
pirooting = meandering, fooling around
romance = to saunter
spraddle = spread out, scatter
squander = wander
vibrate = alternate between (e.g., vibrating between the bar and the dancehall)
weave = travel

eepock (epoch) = point in time
Time of day is told by number of drinks (e.g. the third drink of the evening)

Varied and sundry
alcalde = a town official, e.g. mayor (from Spanish)
bazoo = mouth
blazer = hoax, lie, trick
blind lead = vein of valuable minerals not visible from the surface (metaphorically, one who keeps quiet about something)
clamshell = mouth
dornick = a small stone, field stone
fice-dog = a Feist dog, used for hunting, believed to be a cross between Native American dogs and dogs brought by the colonists
hewgag = toy musical instrument, like a kazoo
hurdy gurdy = dancehall
Nimrod = hunter
simoleon = a dollar
skew-gee = crooked, slanted
wamus = cardigan sweater
wheelers = horses or mules of a team that are closest to the wheels and need to be the strongest
worm fence = zigzag rail fence

Picture credits:
1) bucked-off rider,
2) cowboy, head and shoulders,
3) saloon,
4) cowboy on horse,
5) Charlie Russell, cowboy,

Coming up: Saturday matinee - Lash LaRue in Border Feud


  1. Too dead to skin is a term I will remember and use. That's great. Without a doubt, a great term to use when something is unquestionably dead.

  2. Like another language! God forbid!
    I`ve just been re feltin` the shed roofs, and come down for cup of tea, this is a real pick me up!!

    Cheers Ron!

  3. I've heard some of these in childhood. Larrup for example. I'd forgotten it though but when I saw it here it came back to me. You're gonna get a good larrupin was a term I heard once or twice.

  4. Colorful language, not heard much, if at all, these days and developed by the cowboys (and others) to fit the occasion.

  5. Thanks everybody for giving this one a spin.

    David, too dead to skin is a favorite of mine, too

    Cheyenne, be careful up there on the roof!

    Charles, I came across larrupin' again in another story today. I'd never heard of it before.

    Oscar, who knows where all these words came from, and then where they went to...