Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 36

Here’s another set of terms gleaned 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, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Cy Warman’s Frontier Stories, about railroad men and Indians on the frontier, William De Vere’s collection of “tramp poetry,” Jim Marshall’s New Pianner, and Charles Duff Stuart’s Casa Grande, about a romance on a California ranch. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “Riley’s wabbledy calf” or “equity mill,” leave a comment below.

Benjamin Franklin King, Jr.
barb wire = strong whiskey or brandy. “They’d ask him why he didn’t send to papa for a check / So he could purchase barb wire booze to lubricate his neck.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

bard of St. Joe = Ben King (1857-1894), a humorist and poet from St. Joseph, Michigan, who billed himself as “The Sweet Singer of St. Joe. “‘Nowhere to stand but on, and nowhere to fall but off,’ as the deceased bard of St. Joe would say.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

Benighted Harry = the boy in “Harry and the Guidepost,” a poem in McGuffey’s Third Reader. “Being thoroughly frightened, I walked right over to their camp to show them that I was not,—making by this movement the same cold bluff that Benighted Harry made on the friendly guide-post.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

Benighted Harry
Boulanger March = musical composition by L. C. Desormes (1841-1898). “He thundered off ‘Boulanger’s March,’ you bet, it was a daisy.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner. Listen here.

bug juice = illicitly distilled whiskey. “The jug of ‘bug juice,’ as he called it, Whipsaw had kept constantly just inside the open door of the cabin.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

bull’s eye lamp = an oil-burning reading light with a glass magnifying the light as it fell on the page. “At the flash of a bull’s eye lamp in the roundhouse the men were to fall down and crawl up to within ten yards of the stream.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

“By the Sad Sea Waves” = popular song from the1890s by Lester Barrett and Lester Thomas. “He played ‘The Sad Sea Waves’ until you’d think you heard them sobbin.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

budgy = drunk. “When pestered by some ‘Budgy guy’ / You’d almost read it in their eye.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

camp robber = a jay of northern North America with black-capped head and no crest; noted for boldness in thievery. “A camp robber was screaming on a cedar bough above the prostrate figures.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

crack a bottle = have a drink. “He could play two deuces pat at bluff, / Could ‘crack a bottle,’ or ‘blow his stuff.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

devil = an assistant, apprentice. “He swore he would kill off the working force, from the editor-in-chief down to ‘Freckled Jimmie,’ the devil.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

Dog Soldiers = a militaristic band of Cheyenne Indians who resisted western expansion into Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. “He bade them each mount behind an Indian,—his body guard, or staff, called the ‘Dog soldiers,’ because they worshipped dogs, having crowded about to protect their chief.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

fakir = a street salesman of cheap goods. “It’s but a little phrase, ’tis true, / Its meaning well each ‘fakir’ knew.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Eugene Field
Field, Eugene = popular American poet (1850-1895), newspaper writer and editor, known for his children’s poetry. “Always carried a copy of Gene field’s Western verses. Said he knowed Field.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

hackle = an instrument with steel pins used to comb out flax or hemp. “Upon either thigh he had countless scars, as though he had been whipped with a flax hackle.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

jar = dispute, fight. “If the like of me keep out of family jars, the like of Mrs. Scott wouldn’t live with such men.” Charles Duff Stuart, Casa Grande.

“Johnny, Get Your Gun” = popular 1886 song by Monroe H. Rosenfeld (1861-1918), who coined the term “Tin Pan Alley.” “Then with old ‘Johnny Get Your Gun’ he sot the rafters ringin.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

jumper = a loose, protective garment worn over other clothes. “Closing his shirt he examined his jumper, pulled his book of rules out, and found a deep furrow ploughed across the cover.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

knock a twister = to send a person into contortions. “He had a sister / That could play the Suannee River till would knock us all a twister.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Sheet music, "Little Annie Rooney
“Little Annie Rooney” = music hall song from 1890, by Michael Nolan; popular also in the US. “He rattled ‘Playmates’ off, and then he switched to ‘Annie Rooney.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Little Willie = a genre of macabre short verse, usually involving children, originated by English writer Harry Graham (1874-1936). “Used to follow him down to the midnight train at St. Joe, gist to hear him speak ‘Little Willie’ to the ticket agent.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

madroño = a small tree or shrub with red flaking bark and edible red berries. “The ranchero was mounted on a lithe bay mare, which swiftly climbed the lazy rises of intervening hills dotted thick with oak, buckeye and madroño.” Charles Duff Stuart, Casa Grande.

mosquito bar = a net or curtain for excluding mosquitoes, used for beds and windows. “Doc said he was afraid the ‘queen o’ the ballet,’ as he called her, would get tangled in her miskeeter-bar dress and kick herself to death.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

pay streak = a stratum of mineral deposit capable of yielding profitable amounts of ore. “In spite of the pay-streak of pathos which the reader will doubtless detect in the word-work, there were moments when I could hardly help laughing.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

poultice = a soft moist mass of bread, meal, clay, or other adhesive substance, usually heated, spread on cloth, and applied to warm, moisten, or stimulate an aching or inflamed part of the body; thus a soothing remedy. “We put away one poultice, and then paralyzed another.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

shell man = operator of a shell game. “The great daily, I am proud to say, endureth still, a menace to road agents and shell men.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

Simmons, Joe = friend and colleague of Soapy Smith; died of pneumonia in 1892 in Creede, Colorado. “Joe Simmons had done very little to win the applause of the newspaper fraternity, but, dying as he did on the eve of the first issue of a great daily he made the hit of his life.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

Slanting Annie = well-remembered prostitute who lived and died in Creede, Colorado. “All about were new-made graves, where Joe Simmons and ‘Slanting Annie’ slept side by side.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

snap a cap = to fire a shot. “The watch officer had caught him in the act, followed him into his lodge, leveled his pistol, and snapped a cap in the Crow’s face.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

special = a train used for a particular purpose or occasion. “While he was asleep in Colonel Ricker’s special, a standard-gauge engine had crashed into the car and Wilson had had his right leg broken above the knee.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

spike maul = a hand tool used to drive railroad spikes. “At a flag station they robbed a section house, secured a red light and a spike maul, and determined to take one more fall out of the midnight express.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

split trick = a worker’s shift divided into two discontinuous segments. “He is the ‘split-trick’ in the prosperous law firm of Gleed, Ware and Gleed, of Topeka.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

“Song That Reached My Heart, The” = popular 1887 ballad by US composer, Julian Jordan (1850-1927). “He played ‘The Song that Reached My Heart,’ till Burrill Wade went loony.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner. Listen here.

“Stick to Your Mother, Tom” = a popular sentimental song, c1885, by Harry Birch. “And then he run the gamut up to ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,’ / And played ‘Stick to Your Mother, Tom,’ until he made us cry.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner. Listen here.

switch target = a railway indicator that identifies to a train operator which track a train is intended to take when it reaches a switch. “There was not a house at that station; only a solitary switch target at either end of a long and lonely side-track.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

token = a physical object that a locomotive driver is required to have or see before entering onto a particular section of single track. “The amateur flagman allowed the light to bob about in an awkward, unseemly manner that caused the man on the leading locomotive to mistrust the ‘token.’” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

tollon = ornamental evergreen treelike shrub of the Pacific coast having large white flowers and red berrylike fruits. “When Miller returned he bore a mass of freshly cut tollones, the ripening berries turning red.” Charles Duff Stuart, Casa Grande.

water haul = a fruitless effort. “Another such water haul would bring about the leader’s impeachment.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: William "Bill" De Vere, Jim Marshall's New Pianner (1897)


  1. I heard "bug juice" a lot up through the 1950's. Thanks for the glossary.

  2. I've read a lot about the Dog Soldiers. Since I'm working on a couple of western stories again I'm gonna have to pay really close attention to these posts. Don't be surprised if some words don't show up in those stories.

    1. The term was new to me when I came across it.

  3. Can't find any Scottish resonances in this batch! But 'fakir' must be from Anglo-Indian, from when the British Empire included India.

  4. Wonder if everyone's brain is something of an attic. Your glossary brought up things I'd forgotten--or that I didn't know I knew! This time, I discovered I knew the words AND melody to "Little Annie Rooney!"

    1. My memory comes up with these surprises, too. Ha.