Monday, November 28, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 22

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 Caroline Lockhart’s novel Me—Smith. Once again I struck out a few times. If anybody knows the meaning of  “long-geared,” “Mormon lilies,” or “medicine shark,” leave a comment.

Battle Axe = a brand of plug tobacco. “Alkali nothin’. That’s gum-boot, or else a plug of Battle Ax fell in.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.
Bartender, 1862
booze clerk = bartender. “He congratulated himself that he had filled his pocket from the booze-clerk’s sugar-bowl before the mix came.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

buck ague = nervousness while taking aim at deer or other game. “Would you get buck-ague in a pinch and quit me if it came to a show-down? Are you a stayer?” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

bug-hunter = any stranger engaged in scientific pursuits. “He decided to ride over to the MacDonald ranch that evening and have a look at the bad hombre who masqueraded as a bug-hunter.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

buzzard head = a useless or mean horse. “Don’t that look like a reg’lar Injun outfit? One old white horse and a spotted buzzard-head.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

dead game = never daunted. “You work along with me, kid, and I’ll make a dead-game one out of you!” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

digger = a crippled horse. “Ralston’s rope, cutting the air, dropped about the neck of the insignificant, white ‘digger’ that had caused it all.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

glanders = an infectious bacterial disease usually found in horses. “‘It’s dum nigh as bad as glanders. Catchin’, too, and I holds that anybody that’s got it bad ought to be dipped and quarantined.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

hand running = in a row, successively. “I’ve seen myself in my coffin four times hand-runnin’, when I was wide awake.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

hunks = even (as in “to get even”). “Smith’ll never rest till he’s ‘hunks’.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

lump-jaw = a fungus infection in forage-eating animals, causing swelling of the jaw. “‘Love is a terrible disease,’ Tubbs spoke with the emphasis of conviction. ‘It’s worse’n lump-jaw er blackleg'.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.
Postcard, c1910
make a mash = to seduce someone. “‘He’s makin’ a mash,’ said Ling laconically, as he jerked his thumb toward the open door of the living-room.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

make medicine = to hold a conference, plan some action. “I’m goin’ down the road to make medicine with the Schoolmarm.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

on the peck = fighting mad. “I’m more er less a dang’rous character when I’m on the peck.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Oregon grape root = a tonic and blood purifier. “Why don’t you bile up some Oregon grape-root. That’ll take most anything out of your blood.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

plant = a hiding place for stolen goods. “I’ll go with her. It’s no use for me to get to the plant before afternoon.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.
Oregon grape, 1917
queer = spoil the reputation or chances of a person. “‘Look at that dude,’ said Smith contemptuously, viewing the incident through the living-room window. ‘Queerin’ hisself right along. No more sabe than a cotton-tail rabbit.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

quit the flat = leave the country. “I got a lickin’ that wasn’t comin’ to me, and I quit the flat when I was thirteen.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

rave and cave = quarrel, complain, object. “I don’t row often, but when I does—oh, lordy! lordy! I just raves and caves.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

rip up the sod = have a good time; go on a tear. “When we make a stake, we’ll go to Billings and rip up the sod!” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

roached mane = a horse’s mane, clipped short. “Have you seen a brown horse, with a star in its forehead, roached mane” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

scissor-bill = a foolish, incompetent, gossipy, or objectionable person. “He must be some Scissor-Bill from Missouri. They all act like that when they first come out.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

side-kicker = partner, accomplice (cf. sidekick). “‘You’re a sassy side-kicker,’ he observed good-humoredly.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

snake = drag or pull forcibly. “Here, ketch to my pommel, and I’ll snake you out.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

soap hole = a water-saturated pocket of sand, silt, and clay. “‘Bogged down, pardner?’ she inquired in a friendly voice, as she rode up behind and drew rein. ‘I’ve been in that soap-hole myself.’” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

son-of-a-gun-in-a-sack = a cowboy delicacy made of dried fruit rolled in dough, sewed in a sack, and steamed (aka son-of-a-bitch-in-a-sack). “Once I crawled in a winder and et up a batch of ‘son-of-a-gun-in-a-sack’ that the feller who lived there had jest made.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

squeak = to inform against, betray. “‘Looks like somebody squeaked,’ Smith said meaningly to Susie.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

sword swallower = one who eats from his knife. “‘Anyway,’ she declared encouragingly. ‘You don’t eat with your knife.’ Smith beamed. ‘Did you notice that?’ ‘Naturally, in a land of sword-swallowers, I would.’” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

.22 short cartridge
22-short = reference to ammunition developed in 1857 for the first Smith & Wesson revolver, so named after the introduction of the .22 long cartridge in 1871. “Tubbs’s mental caliber was 22-short; but Smith needed help, and Tubbs seemed the most pliable material at hand.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith. [Western writer Stan Lynde notes that “.22 short is a weak load, less power and shorter case than a .22 long or long rifle; mental cailbre of .22 short would be inferior indeed.]

yap = a contemptible person. “That yap up there at the top of the hill could have done this for you long ago.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

yellow-back = a cheap, novel of derring-do. “‘A Yellow-back,’ Susie explained with gusto in response to McArthur’s puzzled look, ‘is one of these ducks that reads books with buckskin-colored covers, until he gets to thinkin’ that he’s a Bad Man himself.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Meek’s Cutoff


  1. Man, some of these are pretty strange, like "hunks" and "son-of-a-gun-in-a-sack."

  2. Love lists like this. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Make a mash-mash notes. You can see the evolution of various phrases.

  4. Long Geared is Tall and Thin, Mormon Lilies is Young Mormon girls, before they were married to the older men, Medicine Shark was the Traveling Mediccine shows owner, the one that sold all the Cure all and took everyone that believed what he said.

  5. Buck ague must be what we now call buck fever. It's logical since ague and fever are synonymous (sorta).

    In SW Idaho, there's a flower called the Mormon Lily. Can't remember what--not into flowers. I'd guess Shirley's right about the slang reference, though.

    On the peck is still a popular phrase. Not in my house, of course. LOL


  6. Oscar, I'd heard of son-of-a-gun stew, but this was a new one.

    Lana, thanks for dropping by; there will be more of these.

    Veronica, you are right; I had to look it up.

    Patti, I had the same thought; also "masher."

    Shirley, thanks for these. I kind of gathered that long-geared meant long-limbed, but I couldn't find it anywhere in a reference; Mormon lilies in the context I found it are flowers, and might be the sego lily, but I couldn't corroborate that either; medicine shark came down to either patent-medicine seller (as you say) or a doctor, and I couldn't tell from research which one, but I think you're probably right.

    Jacquie, yes, buck ague is the same as buck fever; see my comment above about Mormon lilies.

  7. buck ague. Lol. We always called it Buck fever. same origin I imagine.

  8. I've heard 'dead game' before, and 'game' by itself, meaning the same thing - I guess the 'dead' part is extra emphasis.

    Several of them seem to have very similar variations: 'squeak' is similar to 'squeal' (I wonder if 'squeak' is older). Wasn't 'on the prod' another old expression for fighting mad or in a dangerous mood?

  9. Ron, you'll find that for Lockhart, there was little difference between "patent medicine seller" and "doctor." She had little faith in the latter, as vividly portrayed in "The Lady Doc."