Monday, November 8, 2010

Old West glossary, no. 3

Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from reading books about that era. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as Ramon Adams’ Cowboy Dictionary and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

A couple terms I couldn't turn up this time were "buzzcock" and "dead gut." If anyone has any guesses about them, leave a comment below.

aguardiente = generic name for alcoholic drinks between 29 and 60 percent alcohol; literally, burning water. “Riots of mounted men in the days when the desperadoes of the range came riding into town now and again for love of danger, or for lack of aguardiente.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

author cards = Authors, a literary card game with portraits of 13 famous authors appearing on the cards: Twain, Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson, Shakespeare, Cooper, Irving, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Scott, Tennyson, Alcott, and Poe. “He says to me I might as well trade my old grays for a nice new checkerboard, or a deck of author cards.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

Blue Back Speller = schoolbook developed by Noah Webster, published 1783. “Our education was very much alike, the principal studies being ‘Blue Back Speller’ and the ‘Dog-wood Switch.’” R. B. Pumphrey, The Trail Drivers of Texas.

blue blotter = one who drinks heavily. “But when a man’s making a blue blotter of himself, things don’t look the same to him.” William MacLeod Raine, Brand Blotters.

bluestone = the very lowest quality gin or whisky. “I’ve know’d you fer awhiles, an’ I tell you right here, Boyle, you’re runin’ a fine career with that same bluestone swill Moe dopes out fer whiskey.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

bucket man = derogatory rustler term for a cowboy. “Sometimes they were called ‘pliers men,’ or ‘bucket men’ by ex-cowboys who would have scorned to carry a ‘bucket of sheep dip,’ or to bother too much about mending a gap in a wire fence.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

choke-weed = a weed that chokes other plants. “You’ve growed an’ growed around this country like choke-weed, an’ it’s ter’ble hard to get good an’ started on you.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

copper-stick = a truncheon. “There had been some debate, and for a while matters hovered in the balance, but a sudden contact with a copper-stick, which took Shaggy in the left eye, seemed to decide matters.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

crawfish = to back down, run away. “He's took his stand, and done what he allowed was right. After that, he ain't built to crawfish.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

dark as Egypt = maybe a reference to the plague of darkness cast on Egypt by Moses in Exodus 10:21. “Flatray counted four other cabins as dark as Egypt.” William MacLeod Raine, Brand Blotters.

democrat wagon = a light flat bed farm wagon or ranch wagon that has two or more seats and is usually drawn by one or more horses. “Then, with some yards intervening, came a four-horsed democrat wagon driven by a large man with a terrible squint.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

farthing dip = a candle. “The earth being as it is to-day, a compromise, and love being dependent upon property, and chastity upon chattels, and the stars of the Universe upon farthing dips.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

glanders = a destructive and contagious bacterial disease of horses. “He had a call for a case of a mare with glanders.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

jib = refuse to move forward; said of an animal in harness. “That boy’s done a mighty heap of work around here since I took him on; he’d come nigh shamin’ a jibbin’ mule.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

gutta-percha = A rubbery substance derived from the latex of any of several tropical trees, used as an electrical insulator, as a waterproofing compound, and (in Emerson Hough) for phonograph records. “Rummaging about, his hand struck one of the round, gutta-percha plates which had accompanied the phonograph.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

hard hat = a derby hat or silk hat, unlike the soft-crowned Stetson of the range and, therefore, much maligned. “A ranch foreman went to Kansas to get married, and report came back from the town that he had been seen wearing a ‘hard hat.’ It required many and elaborate explanations of his part to restore confidence in him after his return to the ranch.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

Ishmaelite = an outcast; someone at odds with society (reference to Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar, the servant of Abraham’s wife Sarah); used in reference to a merchant in Hough. “The Ishmaelite clothier who sells him shoddy stuffs at outrageous prices in his clothing knows better than to offer the range rider sheepskin in his gloves.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

Kafir corn = a Southern African variety of sorghum, cultivated in dry regions for its grain and as fodder, “Was it you, Doc, you benighted stray from the short-grass Kansas plains, where they can't raise Kafir corn?” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

light a shuck = to leave at high speed, run off fast. “They couldn’t quite hang it on him, but he lit a shuck to save his skin from lynchers.” William MacLeod Raine, Brand Blotters.

lunger = someone with an illness, specifically a pulmonary disease. “Ma'am, I'm sorry for you, but I wouldn't really have picked you out for a lunger.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

mimosa = various leafy tropical and subtropical house plants. “Besides all this, there was the mimosa, a perfect forest of it stuck about, a resting-place for dust and the myriads of ecstatically buzzing flies which crowded the hotel from cellar to roof.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

oroide = alloy of copper and tin and zinc; used in imitation gold jewelry. "‘Curly,’ answered Tom, with scorn, ‘what you call your brains is only a oroide imitation of a dollar watch.’” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

peoned out = derogative term among rustlers for a cowboy. “The honest cowboys who remained steadfast in their endeavour to protect the interest of their employers were spoken of with contempt, and were referred to as being ‘peoned out’ to the employers, and were accused of ‘living on bacon rinds, like so many jackasses’.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

pliers man = derogatory rustler term for a cowboy. “Sometimes they were called ‘pliers men,’ or ‘bucket men’ by ex-cowboys who would have scorned to carry a ‘bucket of sheep dip,’ or to bother too much about mending a gap in a wire fence.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

puncheon = plank-covered, as a roadway, or sidewalk in a frontier town. “Neither of the two in the great room heard the footfalls of one who approached in the dusk across the puncheon floor of the wide gallery.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

slap-up = excellent, first-rate, lavish. “We’ll make it a dandy, slap-up affair as’ll par’lyze folk.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

slow elk = cows being rustled. “The big non-resident cattle companies were the chief sufferers through losses of their ‘slow elk’.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

swipe = poor quality beer; a drink consumed in a single gulp. “Don’t pour no more of Moe’s swipes into these fellers’ sinks, or they’ll get logged right up to their back teeth till they don’t know Tuesday from rye whiskey.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

tie-fast man = one who ropes with a short rope tied fast to the saddle horn, a method developed in Texas; a “dally man” used a longer rope, with the near end wrapped (or “dallied”) around the saddle horn, for quick release if necessary. B. F. Day, Gene Rhodes, Cowboy.

Turkey red = cotton cloth dyed red, a process originating in the Ottoman Empire. “The citizens never failed to wave the stars and Stripes, and hang up a few yards of Turkey red, and litter the place with evergreen on these occasions.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

waddy = a cowboy; also, a rustler. “A genuine rustler was called a ‘waddy,’ a name difficult to trace to its origin.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

yellow dog = a cowardly, despicable person. “I’d be scared to death I’d get runnin’ around yeppin’ like a yaller dorg.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole. 

Image credits:

Coming up: Rigwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole (1909)


  1. I love this kind of stuff! Some of this slang needs to work its way back into the common vernacular, if you ask me.

  2. I was familiar with about a third of these, sort of halfway aware of another third ,and completely unaware of the rest. Good stuff. Great reference source,.

  3. "Glanders!"....I believe that may well be the disease we now call Strangles. Its a glandular contagion, devastating among horses, they tend to have pustules on their faces and open sores!!!! Yuk!

  4. Don't know these, but have probably read a few of them in the older books.

  5. Chris, glad you like 'em. There will be more.

    Charles, you have a deeper and wider knowledge of the idiom.

    Cheyenne, and it can be contracted by humans?

    Oscar, if you go back far enough, they're everywhere.

  6. I love your Old West glossaries!
    In Little Women, Meg says "it's as dark as Egypt" outside when she and Jo are getting ready to leave a dance party at their friends' house.