Monday, February 21, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 9

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from early western writing. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which all get cameo appearances today).

These are from Herbert Henry Knibbs’ Overland Red (1914), Charles Lummis’ A Tramp Across the Continent (1892), and Jack Thorp’s writings from the 1930s and collected in Along the Rio Grande. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the Old West meaning of “hard flash” or “gravel in the boots,” leave a comment.

argus = a very vigilant watcher (after Argos of Greek mythology, a person with 100 eyes). “Each man was his own argus. He was expected to know his enemies by instinct.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

bullyrag = to bully, intimidate, harass. “A few Indians came in to trade, and he bullyragged and browbeat them unmercifully.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

brush popper = a cowboy who can drive cattle out of thick brush. “Some of these brush poppers as we used to call them, take a lot more chances than any other riders going.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

bushwhacker = an unsophisticated person, hillbilly; originally meaning one who lives in the woods; applied to Confederate irregulars during the Civil War. “A long-bearded bushwhacker came loping along on a little bronco.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

canary = a mule. “Often when an animal necked to a burro refused to lead or ‘sulled,’ the little canary would blaze away with his heels at the steer, who wouldn’t be long in obeying orders.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

chromo = a mass produced color image using a lithographic printing process; a chromolithograph. “The altar flared with innumerable candles which twinkled on ancient saints and modern chromos, on mirrors and tinsel and paper flowers.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

cold jawed = a horse that keeps his jaw closed and is likely to get the bit in his teeth and run with it. “And if they didn’t take the bit in their teeth, and go cold jawed with you, though full of thorns, scratched and bleeding, you would find yourself still on your horse when the run was over.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

continental cent = a penny coin struck in the early days of the American Revolution and worthless to anyone except a collector. “Of course, on the other hand, it may not be worth a continental cent, but a miner is willing to take his chances.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

copenhagen = A children's game in which one player is enclosed by a circle of others holding a rope. “There is nothing like copenhagen or any of the similar old-fashioned raral games of the East.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

cut trail = to come across or discover a trail. “‘They cut my back trail,’ said Overland, snuggling down behind the brush.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

German = a cotillion, a complex dance in which one couple leads the other couples through a variety of figures and there is a continual change of partners. “The evolutions of their ‘grand march’ are too intricate for description, and would completely bewilder a fashionable leader of the German.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

Great Eastern = the largest ocean-going vessel in the 19th century, capable of transporting 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling. “He was a gentleman of chronic woes, and in the first hour of acquaintance told me sorrows enough to have swamped the Great Eastern had she tried to carry them all.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

irrigate = drink, take a drink. “Come over ’n’ let’s irrigate.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

jingle bob = historically, the distinctive cutting of a cow’s ear by early New Mexico rancher, John Chisum; also, a piece of metal dangling against a spur rowel which makes a ringing sound as a cowhand walks, and keeps livestock from being surprised by his movement, especially at night. “His brand was a long rail on the side, while for an earmark he gave the jingle bob, ‘Ear cut so it hangs down like a bell’.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

melodeum = a small keyboard organ. “I was scared it was vi’lets and ‘Gather at the River,’ without the melodeum, for him.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

map = a person’s face. “He rides about five rods on the cayuse and then five more on his map.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

off one’s crust = crazy. “Billy’s gone off his crust. He’s ravin’ back there, Brand.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

Pecos = to dispose of a body in the Pecos River. “The river was known by many as the river of sin, for when a man was killed in its vicinity, he sometimes was weighted down and his body sunk in the stream, hence the saying to Pecos him, or he was Pecosed.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

pomatum = a perfumed ointment for grooming the hair; pomade. “In five minutes he was gone in a cloud of dust, the tatters of the hat on his pomatumed head.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

riding chuck-line = said of a cowboy riding from ranch to ranch, usually during the winter months, in search of work; explained further as follows:  “All ranches make him welcome for a night or so, when he again moves on.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

riding Indian = Ramon Adams lists ride a la Comanché, meaning to ride hanging on the side of a horse, as the Comanche did in battle. I’m guessing that’s the meaning intended in this example:  “Some of the old experienced brush horses, depended more in breaking their way through the brush, and you could by ‘riding Indian’ all over them.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

shillalah = a cudgel; club made of hardword (from Irish Shillelagh). “But a forty-four makes a terrible shillalah; and with the crazy zeal which at times catches the least courageous hunter, I clubbed it and ‘waded in’.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

single-foot = a rapid gait of a horse in which each foot strikes the ground separately. “Sleek bays with ‘Kentucky’ written in every rippling muscle, single-footed in beside heavy mountain ponies, well boned, broad of knee, strong of flank, and docile.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

snake weed = Any of various plants reputed to have the power to cure snakebite. “In a land like New Mexico, what with barrancas, arroyos, waste sand hills, timbered land, and miles where there is nothing but snake-weed, it takes upon an average from eighty to a hundred acres to support a cow.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

tile = a hat. “He took of his new silk ‘tile,’ walked forty yards or so toward the river, and set it down – behind the stump of a big cottonwood.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

white alley = in the game of marbles, a white marble used for shooting. “I make a distinction between gunman and gunfighter, the former being practically a murderer, while the latter always gave a foe a chance for his White Alley; in short, a gunfighter was not a hired killer.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

Yaqui = an Indian tribe originally in northern Mexico and now also in Arizona. “My Gosh, he can eat! And a complexion like a Yaqui.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Martha Sandweiss, Print the Legend


  1. It's interesting that of these, bushwhack is still in use, but it means to traverse a pathless area, like deadfall or dense brush. At least, that's how I use it!

    Good post, Ron.

  2. I've always heard 'bushwhack' used with the meaning 'ambush.'

  3. Looks like "bushwhack" is an example of an expression that took on a new meaning as time went by. First we have the meaning as listed above and then in just about every western novel it takes on the ambush meaning.

  4. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology doesn't help a lot but derives bushwack (first cited 1866, meaning "to ambush") from bushwacking (1841, meaning "the concept of ambush or marauding"), and before that bushwacker (1809, probably from the Dutch word for "forest keeper").

    In my reading, Quantrill's Raiders during the Civil War were referred to as bushwackers, given their use of ambush as marauders and possibly their habit of taking cover in wooded areas.

  5. THAT's what those words meant;)
    I just learned an entirely new language (or meanings of). Guess I was in the dark on some of these!

    Great (informative) post:)

  6. Rooster Cogburn refers to LaBoeuf as a "Texas brush-popper" in True Grit. I thought it was more of an insult than the real definition implies.