Monday, May 2, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 11

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 searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are mostly from Robert Alexander Wason’s novel Friar Tuck (1912). Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the Old West meaning of “Goog of Mayhan,” “only son burro,” “Stuttering Sam,” or “file the clutch,” leave a comment.

Bodie, California. Photo by Daniel Mayer
Bad man from Bodie = a mythical hell raiser from Bodie, California, a gold mining boomtown, 1878-1880. “Like ‘the bad man from Bodie,’ fear to him is an unknown quantity, and the greater the danger the more desperate he seems to become.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 30 July 1881. Read more here.

brace game = a gambling game in which there is concealed cheating. “When any professional hold-up men tried to ring in a brace game on us, he couldn’t see any joke in it.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

Elijah in chariot of fire
chariots of fire = an emphatic expression; reference to usually airborne modes of transportation associated in the Old Testament with the divinity. “It looked like a put-up job, all right; an’ chariots of fire, but he was mad!” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

chirky = cheerful, happy. “Horace didn’t have any upliftin’ words to match the Friar’s; but he had some chirky little ways which were mighty comfortin’.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

flam = to deceive, play a trick, hoodwink. “This here expedition was got up just on account o’ your nerves, an’ now that we’ve come to the most important point of all, why, you flam out an’ put all the risk on us.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

flinders = fragments, small pieces, splinters. “It saved him from gettin’ his feelin’s kicked into flinders about him, an’ interferin’ with the view.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

gazabo = guy, fellow; an awkward, strange, or stupid person. “I’ve been called a lot o’ different tings in my time; but you’re the first gazabo ’at ever called me a coward.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

handrunning = consecutively, in a row. “After Horace had made the test of shootin’ at dead snakes an’ had found that he couldn’t pop off three heads hand-runnin’, he simmered down a little an’ paid more heed to what I told him.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

Idaho sheep
hive = chase off, get rid of. “Sometimes the pack-rat would toil so industrious ’at he’d wake us up an’ we’d try to hive him.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

iodoform = a yellow crystalline compound similar to chloroform, with a sweet odor, used as an antiseptic. “Our strength was as plain to them, as Tillte Dutch was the time he fell in love and used iodoform on his hair instead o’ perfume.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

on one’s own hook = at one’s own risk. “I am sort of an outcast now, and just doing what seems best on my own hook.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

scrooge = squeeze. “Horace scrooged back into bed an’ pulled all the covers off Tank whom he was sleepin’ with.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

sheep = to take advantage in an annoying way; derived from the driving of sheep across a cattleman’s range. “While they was sheepin’ Skelty about his shootin’, two strangers rode up.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

show = a chance, an opportunity, an advantage. “‘Now, I call that a fair deal,’ he said to his friend; ‘gives every man a show. No cards up the sleeve.’” Ralph Connor, The Sky Pilot.

Grizzly, Yellowstone Park
silver-tip = grizzly bear. “The preacher shook hands with ’em all around – he had a grip that woudn’t be no disgrace for a silver-tip.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

smoke wagon = six gun. “As we drew closer we made our smoke-wagons ready, while his two Greasers kept their hands in plain view, and harmless.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

Spanish trot = a horse’s gait with exaggerated lifting of the front legs. “Well, he came up the pass shufflin’ along at a steady Spanish trot as was usual with him when not overly rushed.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck. See a video example here.

venting iron = a cattle branding iron used to cancel the brand of a previous owner and mark an animal as sold. “The Cross brand was a simple one, just one straight line crossin’ another; and it could be put on in about one second with a ventin’ iron.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

vinegar pie = a simple pie made of sugar and flour (with eggs and butter if available) and flavored with spices and vinegar. “We had expected to have some high jinks that day, an’ Kit had baked a lot o’ vinegar pies for dinner.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

whack-up= sharing out, dividing up. “‘What ya goin’ to kill her with?’ he asked, his eyes dancin’ like an Injun’s at the beef whack-up.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

wide-awake = vigilant. “Another Exciting Day in the Wide-Awake Town of Caldwell, Kansas.” Headline from Chicago Daily Tribune, 18 December 1881.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Cowboys in the news, 1881


  1. My wife brought me a cool book home yesterday, a Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West. I'm looking forward to perusing it.

  2. Charles, just checked it out, the new edition, and based on the reviews ordered a copy from AbeBooks. Looks like an excellent reference. Thanks for the heads up.