Monday, August 1, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 16

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from novels about a U.S. Army post in West Texas and a mining camp in Colorado and Owen Wister’s first collection of short stories. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the meaning of “lose the brush,” “three blind appetites,” “balance to corners,” or “poor Lar,” leave a comment.

Cavalry sergeant, 1866
astral lamp = an oil lamp constructed so that no shadow is cast upon the table by the flattened ring-shaped reservoir in which the oil is contained. “Tables covered with dainty bric-à-brac, and shelves with tempting books, lighted by several large and beautiful astral lamps.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

blouse = a jacket as part of a US military uniform. “Several men were leaping from their broad galleries, some just pulling on a blouse, others in their shirt-sleeves, but all hastening towards the stables.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

bullfinch = a hedge too thick or high for a horse and rider to jump through. “Between the gate-posts swung a barrier of cobweb lightness, slender and airy as ever spider wove, but bristling with barbs, stiff as ‘bullfinch’ and unyielding as steel.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

burnt feathers = a home remedy for bringing someone out of a faint. “He vaguely bethought him of burnt feathers, and looked about for the discarded pillow, wondering if it might not be a brilliant idea to cut it open and extract a handful and set it ablaze under those broad and eminently aristocratic nostrils.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

catchpenny = made to sell readily at a low price, regardless of value or use. “With his catch-penny plausibility, his thin-spread good-fellowship, and his New York clothes, he mistook himself for a respectable man.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White. 

Cretonne covered chair
crash towelling = towels made of coarse, thick linen. “Temptations to feminine purchasers taking the more domestic form of babies’ knitted hoods and sacques, crash toweling, and the newest patterns in cretonne.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

cretonne = a heavy cotton material in colorfully printed designs, used especially for drapery and slipcovers. “Temptations to feminine purchasers taking the more domestic form of babies’ knitted hoods and sacques, crash toweling, and the newest patterns in cretonne.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

duck = fellow, person. “So was the young fellow who put in the mail-bags, and that yellow-headed duck in the store this morning.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

duffer = an incompetent, ineffectual, or clumsy person. “These shoes were set at the post blacksmith-shop, or I’m a duffer.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch. 

Boys playing marbles, c1891
fend dubs = a call in marbles preventing a shooter from taking both marbles if he hits two. “‘What does “fend dubs” mean?’ she persisted. ‘I will teach you to play marbles sometime, if you wish to learn’.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

file-closer = a commissioned or noncommissioned officer posted in the rear of a line, or on the flank of a column, of soldiers, to correct mistakes and insure steadiness and promptness in the ranks. “Two men fell out and made a temporary gap in the rank; through this a sergeant file-closer extended his white glove, relieved the captain of his charge, and led the panting steed away.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

fly = a trick, a dodge. “Ha-ha, Gove’nuh! I rose, suh, to yoh little fly. We’ll awduh some mo’.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

Army service strip
fogie = Army service stripe indicating years of service, one for each five years. “The wife of a faithful and honest old subaltern who had reaped his four ‘fogies’ for twenty years’ service and was still looking forward to his captaincy.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

forage cap = generic name for various types of military undress, fatigue or working headresses. “Instinctively Perry’s hand went up to the visor of his forage-cap and bared the bright, curling crop of hair.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

gage d’amour = a pledge of love; a love token. “I fancy Mrs. Belknap thinks as you thought,—that it was a gage d’amour.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

Giant = dynamite produced by Giant Power Company. “They sets a kag o’ that Giant on the stove to warm it, and it goes off on ‘em and tears everything to pieces.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

hive (off) = to be absent from a group. “[He] had never known a heavier care in the world than the transient and ephemeral anxiety as to whether he would be called up for recitation on a subject had not so much as looked at, or ‘hived’ absent from a roll-call he had lazily slept through.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch. 

Cat poker, Louis Wain, 1915
jackpot = the accumulated stakes in a kind of poker that requires one to hold a pair of jacks or better in order to open the betting. “The Governor hoped he might win now, under the jack-pot system.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

juniper = a rustic, hayseed. “He ain’t the inexperienced juniper he looks.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

lightning express = possibly a reference to a traditional song about a train on which a boy is hurrying to meet his dying mother. “Eager eyes glaring on the bounding quarry, gleaming muscles working in the sunshine like the steel rods of the drivers of the ‘lightning express’.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch. 

Peas in pod
mort = a large quantity or number. “Yes, there’s a mort o’ trouble with them mines!” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

peascod = pea pod. “I want to know why I shouldn’t propose to waltz with a nice girl as well as a thin-waisted young peascod like yourself.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

piazza = a colonnaded porch. “Conrath’s shadow was thrown up against the side of the house, as he came along the piazza, walking with a heavy, careful step.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim. 

portière = a heavy curtain hung across a doorway. “The tiers of almost priceless volumes, the antique furniture, the costly Persian rugs and portieres, the pictures, bronzes, bric-à-brac,—all were valueless in his eager eyes.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

split the wind = to leave quickly, run away. “They well know that, once started, the quarry leaps for the far horizon, vanishes from their view like the ‘Split-the-Wind’ of tradition.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

seedy = unwell. “‘And Miss Maitland,—how is she?’ ‘Rather seedy. She has had a good deal of care and vexation of late’.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch. 

Wells Fargo Express, Deadwood, 1890
shotgun messenger = a guard on a stagecoach or train, to oversee a valuable private shipment, such as a strongbox or safe; typically rode next to the stagecoach driver and carried a short (or sawed-off) 12- or 10-gauge double-barreled shotgun, loaded with buckshot. “Both of them knew the shot-gun messenger and the sheriff, and they asked in some astonishment what the trouble was.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

striker = a private who acts as a voluntary paid servant to a commissioned officer. “He went in and told his striker to get Sergeant Keyser.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

tall swearing = perjury, false testimony. “There was every prospect that when the court convened—and they well knew it would be ordered—there would be some ‘tall swearing’.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch. 

Sheep-lined ulsters, 1906
trencherman = a hearty eater. “You ought to be a valiant trencher-man at your age!” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

ulster = heavy coat worn over ordinary clothing in cold weather. “He was tall, youthful, and stalwart of figure, dressed for a winter journey, in seal-skin cap and belted ulster.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Child on cretonne-covered chair, (CC) Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)
Wells Fargo wagon, photo by John C. H. Grabill

Coming up: Pursued (1947)


  1. I thought it was funny the first time I read about a soldier pulling on a blouse before going into battle. I do remember reading it that way though.

  2. Thanks for these glossaries. They're amazingly useful!

  3. I wonder if our jargon will sound this colorful one hundred years from now.

  4. I think three blind appetites refers to last meal fed to a condemned man. The phrase, Three Legged Mare means a gallows and when a condemned man was given a last meal, his jailer and hangman also consumed the same meal. I think that's it anyway but have been unable to find anything out about this, though I do seem to remember reading it somewhere. Poor Lar could also be pronunciation of poorly. And lose the brush sounds like someone being scalped. He's lost the brush.

  5. Another good batch, this one seems especially relevant to familiar modern slang. Wouldn't "fogie: an old man," "duffer: a foolish old guy" and "split: to leave" be the direct progeny of these?

  6. Charles, I puzzled over "blouse," too, until I researched it.

    Heath, thanks. Gonna put them all into an ebook eventually.

    Patti, colorful and incomprehensible.

    Gary/Jack, good guessing.

    Richard, you could be right about all these.