Monday, January 23, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 25

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 Patience Stapleton’s Babe Murphy, about an independent young woman in Colorado, and Marah Ellis Ryan’s Told in the Hills about a squaw man in Montana. As usual I struck out once or twice. If anybody knows the meaning of  “grave room,” leave a comment.

Basque, 1857
basque = waistcoat, bodice, corset, or other tight-fitting clothing for the upper body. “Somehow I remember that Jim Dunn’s saying I’d a trim figure, and being more than ever careful of the set of my basques.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

battledore = a small racket used in a game of badminton. “Some of the dismal periods of my life have been passed in the company of married folks, where I became a sort of shuttlecock for their contradictory battledoors.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

boodle = money. “Clara’s got the boodle too, and I’m broke, as usual, and we are going to Texas, cuss the luck.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

bump = a mental faculty supposedly associated with certain shapes of the cranium; from phrenology. “My bump of curiosity was enlarged somewhat as to his life.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

by hooky = a mild expletive. “‘A regular cave, by hooky!’ said the moral guide from Idaho, as he stood upright at last.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

catamaran = a quarrelsome woman. “There are lots of old catamarans around me all the time to tell on me.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

corndodger = cornbread made in a skillet. “He uncovered the fire, set on the coffee-pot, and, with Rachel’s help, had, in a very short time, a steaming-hot dinner of broiled bear steaks and ‘corn-dodgers.’” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Presidential fifteen-puzzle, 1880
croaker = killjoy, complainer, pessimist. “Her joy was mine, and I would not be the croaker to cast the first shadow over her sunshine.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

fifteen puzzle = a sliding puzzle that consists of a frame of numbered square tiles in random order with one tile missing. “We resume our conversation on the tariff, which we know as little about as anybody else, and which is, it seems to me, the great fifteen puzzle of the nineteenth century.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

freeze to it = hold fast to something. “This trail goes somewhere; may be to an Injun village. I allow we’d better freeze to it.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Gainsborough portrait, c1876
Gainsborough hat = A woman's broad-brimmed hat resembling those shown in portraits by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). “Mrs. Ballinger was with her in gorgeous raiment, as usual, this time I think some sort of a figured silk in soft pink and blue with a wide Gainsborough hat.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

got up regardless = furnished at great expense. “‘Yes, remarked a gentleman who joined them during this speech, and whose brand-new hunting suit bespoke the ‘got-up-regardless’ tourist.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

in the sulks = unhappy. “But he was divided between his impulse to send the trio on a double-quick about their business and the doubt as to what effect it would have on the tribe if they were sent back to it in the sulks.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

independent as a hog on ice = ungovernable. “A young cub of a Siwash came a-riding along to camp about noon, as large as life and independent as a hog on ice.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

jog = the space created by a right-angled notch in a surface. “In a jog behind the door, a safe was set in the wall.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

The Kelpie, Thomas Millie Dow, 1895
kelpie = a supernatural creature of Scottish and Irish folklore, appearing as a woman or, more often, as a horse luring riders into the water where they are drowned and eaten. “O’ course a man likes to try his chance on the chips once in a way, and to the kelpies o’ the drinkin’ places one must leave a few dollars.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Lalla = Persian princess, in a poetic romance, Lalla Rookh (1817), by Irish poet Thomas Moore. “He would do all right for the poet-prince—or was it a king? But  you—well, Rachel, you are not just one’s idea of a Lalla.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

leghorn = the dried and bleached straw of an Italian variety of wheat. “She came in then, in her pretty blue muslin, with her leghorn hat and drooping plumes.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

mousquetaire = opera or evening glove. “As I turned to go home, I saw in the road at my feet, a mousquetaire glove, tan-colored and scented with violet.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

osier = willow branches used for basket weaving. “The brief blaze of the match showed him the fireplace and a pile of wood beside it, and a great osier basket of broken bark.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

pattern = model, exemplary. “Not that she did not always behave perfectly proper, she is a pattern woman, but she did not act the recluse because Tom was absent.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

petted on = fond of, pleased by. “Aunty Luce declared she ‘nevah did see a chile so petted on one who wasn’t no kin.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Bustle frame, 1873
plumpers = a contrivance for expanding skirts; a bustle or hoop. “I’ve a mind to get some red paint and what are those things, plumpers, and blonde my hair and start out on the war path.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

pone = cornmeal bread made in a skillet. “Here is a little crock half full of eggs—prairie-chicken, I guess—say, can you make a pone?” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

ranch manners = rules of behavior considered polite by western standards. “‘You are the rudest boy,’ laughed Mrs. Beach; ‘ranch manners, I suppose.’” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

rattling = very good. “I never knowed she was such a rattlin’ cook.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

sauce = speak impertinently. “As old Ben Rines, of Southport, used to say, when the boys sauced him, ‘Let ’em talk, it don’t hurt me none.’” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

sham = decorative pillow cover. “I followed him into a beautiful room, a soft blue tint in paper, carpet and furniture, a bed with lace shams and spread, exquisite pictures on the walls, and everywhere dainty bric-a-brac.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

Simon-pure = the genuine article; the real thing. “I have been reading of Southern gentlemen all my life, and there is the Simon-pure, only with the great heart this generous big State gives to all of its men.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

Siwash = derogatory term used to refer to Indians in the Pacific Northwest; from Chinook. “Even a hulking Siwash, with his squaw and children, came dragging down the valley in the wake of the freshets.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

smutch = blacken, dirty, smudge. “Tillie had a great deal of charity for black sheep, but she believed in them having a corral to themselves, and not allowing them the chance of smutching the spotless flocks that have had good luck and escaped the mire.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

snow wreath = snow drift. “To be sure, there be times when one canna stir for the snow wreaths, but that’s to be allowed for.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

spoon = foolish, sentimental affection. “Stuart had a bad case of spoons.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

stump = a dare. “You think you are witty, Con, but you are only aggravating, sort of stumping me, as Tom used to, and I would break my neck rather than take a stump.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

Thomas Moore
talking-paper = Indian term for written message, letter, document. “Genesee has sent in the talking-paper to Ole-Man Mac that the Reservation Indians south have dug up the hatchet.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Tom Moore = Thomas Moore (1779-1852), popular Irish poet; remembered for “The Last Rose of Summer.” “‘Well, you must have had a nice sort of a time up here,’ concluded Fred; ‘a sort of Tom Moore episode.’” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

ward bummer = political trickster; ward heeler. “When the blatant noises in Congress and conventions and the ward bummers in the beer halls quit war talk, the late unpleasantness will be forgotten.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

yaller/yellow = the U.S. Cavalry, so called for the yellow trim on their uniforms. “All else had drifted into nothingness to him, for the ‘yaller’  had come.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: John Ford, The Iron Horse (1924)


  1. It's kind of sad how much of this language disappeared. It seems more colorful than what we use now--which tends to be techie.

  2. That's the first time I've seen or heard the term "Yaller" used in connection with the U. S. Cavalry, but those people had a term for about everything it seems. Part of it, I think, is where you were born and raised.

  3. I recognize a few of these, pone, bump, boodle, jog. I've used 'em myself, except maybe for pone. Only used it in stories.