Monday, May 23, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 12

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 from turn of the century novels and stories I’ve been reading. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the Old West meaning of “swatty, “thumb hand side,” “miggles,” “storm-shed,” or “light pole buggy,” leave a comment.

ace-high = excellent, superior (from poker). “I've mined for twenty year, and from Old Mexico to Alaska, but I never saw anything that was ace-high to that before.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

bone = a dollar. “‘What wages are you fellows drawing down?’ he asked, bluntly. ‘Three bones,’ the Lark told him.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

boneset = Eupatorium, a perennial daisy used historically to treat a viral infection known as “break bone fever.” “Look at you! That will be as bitter as boneset!” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

bust a tug = collapse from the effort to accomplish something. “He's goin' to make a town down in that sand-pile or bust a tug; I ain't sayin' which right now.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

cushion carroms = in billiards, bouncing the cue ball off one or more sides of the table (cushions) before striking another ball. “Now, Sonny, you keep your temper, and watch me play cushion carroms with our friend there." Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

cut the pigeon wing = a brisk, fancy dance step executed by jumping and striking the legs together. “When the figure ‘balance to your partners’ was reached many a fellow would ‘cut the pigeon-wing,’ and his partner, not to be outdone, would indulge in some fantastic steps.” The Chicago Tribune, 18 October 1882.

gallinipper = a stinging or biting insect. “That what I'm payin' you for, you blame gallinipper!” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

huckleberry = the right person for a job. “If you want to go wild-catting over the hills and far away, I’m your huckleberry.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

jick = one of the Jacks in a game of cards. “‘Couldn't find ’em nohow,’ says he; ‘hunted high and low, jick, Jack, and the game.’” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

jimjams = delirium tremens. “Rattlesnake Valley, over yonder, ain't never been good for much exceptin' the finest breed of serpents an' horn-toads a man ever see outside a circus or the jimjams.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882
John Chinaman = a stock caricature of a Chinese laborer seen in cartoons of the 19th century; typically depicted with a long queue and wearing a coolie hat. “‘Maybe you find my home a fit dwelling place for John Chinaman,’ she pouted.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

Old Dog Tray = sentimental Stephen Foster song about an old man and his dog. “He put the mill between his knees, and converted the beans to powder, to the tune of ‘Old dog Tray’ through his nose, which Miss Mattie found very amusing.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

make the riffle
= to succeed at something. “‘Boys,’ says I, under my breath, ‘they've made the riffle’.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

Old Harry = the Devil. “The next day we worked like the Old Harry.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

Stephen Foster, 1826-1864
peach = to inform against an associate or accomplice. “Afraid to peach for fear of antagonizing the gang.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

penstock = a channel, trough, or tube for conveying water from a lake or dam to a waterwheel or turbine. “The crowd cheered as the imprisoned waters leapt to freedom with a hollow roar, raising in pitch as the penstock filled and the wheels began to go round.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

pot cheese = a type of coarse, dry cottage cheese. “He also took some pot-cheese under a misapprehension; swallowed it, and said to himself that he had been through worse things than that.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

pussy wants a corner = a parlor game for children in which one player in the middle of a room tries to take one of the positions around the walls and corners that become vacant as other players exchange places at a signal. “Another slinking shadow glided behind the vacated position. It was a ghastly presentation of ‘Pussy-wants-a-corner’ played in nightmare.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars. 

Snow-on-the-mountain, photo by H. Zell
shake-down = an impromptu bed. “I crawled over to my neighbors, the Whites, and Mother White made me a shake-down.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

skin game = any form of gambling designed to fleece the uninitiated. “I ain't going to stand for putting up a summer breeze ag’in’ that feller’s good dough—that’s a skin game, to speak it pleasantly.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

snow-on-the-mountain = Euphorbia marginata, an annual native from Minnesota to Colorado and Texas; light green leaves with broad, silver variegated edges. “Butterflies hovered over the snow-on-the-mountain.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

Wrappers and tea gowns
Studebaker = horse-drawn freight wagon developed by brothers Henry and Clement Studebaker, who started business in South Bend, Indiana, in the 1850s. “And lined up to the right of the tent were twenty big, long-bodied Studebaker wagons, each with four barrels of water.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

up sticks = to leave, change location. “Hotel-man said it was up-sticks now, and he meant to pay his just debts like an honest man, and that made four drinks.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

wrapper = a woman's garment worn over nightwear or lingerie. “This falling off might have dated from a certain September morning when he had lost himself – for all time – to a girl with pain-pinched face and fever-brightened eyes who wore a blue wrapper.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders (1901)


  1. In that western museaum we went to, they had a bunch of little brass buttons with numbers on them. These were given to cowboys in saloons in trade for their guns, which were stored until they got ready to leave. I thought that was a pretty cool little detail.

  2. I know there were saloons (and whole towns) that required the checking in of guns, but I'd never heard of a system like this one in the Old West. Thanks for the note.

  3. These are so colorful. Hard to tell if we are coming up with phrases so specific to our life.

  4. Once again a great list -- I did know a handful.

  5. Patti, I think the current patois will seem colorful in the future, but words and phrases have such a short shelf life today, you have to wonder whether most will be understood.

    OGR, I bet you know some I couldn't find meanings for.

  6. These are so cool, will have to use a couple of them some time! We gotta up sticks...