Monday, February 11, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 56

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people gleaned from early western fiction. 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, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Francis Lynde’s The Grafters, William MacLeod Raine’s Wyoming, and Harry Leon Wilson’s The Lions of the Lord. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “send someone over the road,” “beat up the scenery,” “hill steer,” “bye-low land,” or “party call,” leave a comment below.

across the divide = long gone; gotten rid of. “Hadn’t been for her these boys would have been across the divide hours ago.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Balaam and the angel
Balaam’s burro = a biblical beast of burden who, after a startling encounter with an angel, develops powers of speech. “There is one difference between you and Rabbi Balaam’s burro, David: it could talk sense, and you can’t.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

burn the wind = to ride fast, make haste. “No use buck-jumpin’ along to burn the wind while they drill streaks of light through us.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

caplock = a muzzle-loading firearm, using a small metal percussion cap, which is struck by the hammer, creating a flash which ignites powder. “If the gun was a caplock, the cap was to be taken off and a piece of leather put on to exclude moisture and dirt.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.
Berdan Sharps rifle

cipher = to calculate, think out. “Glad to hear of it. I’ll cipher out somehow to be there.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

crown sheet = the upper sheet and hottest part of the inner firebox on a locomotive boiler. “There is about one chance in a thousand that Callahan’s crown-sheet won’t get red-hot and crumple up on him in the last twenty miles.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

diamond hitch = a kind of knot used to fasten one thing temporarily to another; a common method of roping a pack on an animal. “I’ve a notion those boys are sufferin’ for a woman to put the diamond-hitch on them bandages.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

drop light = a portable gas lamp attached to the gas pipe by a flexible tube; an electric light suspended from the ceiling. “The judge pressed the button of the drop-light and waved his visitor to a chair.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

dumping bar = a device for removing ash and clinker from the fire grate of a locomotive steam engine. “While they wrestle with the dumping-bar, these two, the poising figures have swarmed upon the Naught-seven, and a voice is lifted above the Babel of others in sharp protest.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

dust cutter = an alcoholic drink. “The ball’s about to open. Pardners for a waltz. Have a dust-cutter, Mac, before she grows warm.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Dutch courage = false bravery, fortified by alcohol. “This assurance lent an added braggadocio to the Dutch courage of the lynchers.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

flapper = the arm, hand. “Y’u see, I get him in the flapper without spoiling him complete.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

flintlock = a muzzle-loading firearm, using flint and steel to create a shower of sparks, which ignites the powder. “If a flintlock, the filling was to be taken out and the pan filled with tow or cotton.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

for fair = completely, absolutely, altogether. “The way y’u straddle them high notes is a caution for fair.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

French Fours = a country dance. “There were French Fours, Copenhagen jigs, Virginia reels,—spirited figures blithely stepped.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

go to grass = a dismissive exclamation demanding that someone leave or suggesting that they are talking nonsense. “Y’u go to grass, Mac. I don’t aim to ask y’u to be my valley yet awhile.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

go to Halifax = a mild oath for “go to hell.” “‘Y’u go to Halifax,’ returned Mac genially over his shoulder as he loped away.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

jarred up = shaken, surprised. “I reckon I never did get jarred up so. It’s plumb discouraging.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

J. M. Barrie, 1901
Little White Bird, The = a novel by Scottish author and dramatist J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), published in 1902. “Helen was sitting beside him in an easy chair, and he watched the play of her face in the lamplight as she read from ‘The Little White Bird’.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

lo-the-poor-Indian = a reference to 18th century English poet Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man: “Lo! The poor Indian, whose untutored mind sees God in the clouds, or hears him in the wind.” “Denver, I’ll take care of these beauties while y’u step into the pantry with Mrs. Lo-the-poor-Indian and put up a lunch.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

mast = the fruit of beech, oak, chestnut, and other forest trees, used as food for pigs and wild animals. “We lived on mast and corn, the winter, in tents and a few dugouts and rickety huts.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

nooning = making a noon stop for camp, to unharness and rest draft animals, cook a meal, and move on. “Their nooning was at a running stream called Smith’s Creek.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

parole = a person’s word of honor. “He gave me his parole to go with me whenever I said the word. I’m saying it now.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Woman with reticule
prisoner’s base = a children’s game in which each of two teams has a home base where members of the opposing team are kept prisoner after being tagged and from which they can be freed only in specified ways. “They had attended their first school together, had played marbles and prisoners’ base a hundred times against each other.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

pure = an excellent, first-class person or thing. “He’s ce’tainly a pure when it comes to riding.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

reticule = a woman’s small handbag, with a drawstring. “At the gate was Prudence Corson, gowned for travel, reticule in hand.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Ropewalk, 1887
roll one’s trail/tail = to leave in a hurry. “Y’u better roll your trail, seh; and if y’u take my advice, you’ll throw gravel lively.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

ropewalk = a long straight narrow lane, or a covered pathway, where long strands of material were laid before being twisted into rope. “He passed an empty ropewalk, the hemp strewn untidily about, as if the workers had left hurriedly.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Runabout, 1910
runabout = a small, inexpensive, open car, with a single row of seats, often with a tonneau for additional seating in the rear. “This is only a runabout. You can get one for twelve or fourteen hundred dollars of anybody’s money.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Sherry, Louis = a New York restaurateur (1855-1926), whose first restaurant opened c1880 and became popular with the social elite. “Ah, Sherry’s! That’s since my time. I don’t suppose I should know my way about in little old New York now.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Snag boat, Missouri River, 1912
snag boat = a steamboat with an apparatus for removing impeding debris (snags) from inland waters. “As I once said to Sidney Rigdon, our boat is an old snag boat and has never been out of Snag-harbour.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

surcingle = a wide strap that runs over the back and under the belly of a horse, used to keep a blanket or other equipment in place. “Whyfor should I care what y’u say? I guess this outfit ain’t got no surcingle on me.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

sweep = an unpleasant person. “I ain’t saying that I love you, because I’m a sweep and it’s just likely I don’t know passion from love.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Pack horse with surcingle
tangent = straight railway track. “The electric beam of Tischer’s following headlight sought and found the first section on the long tangent leading up to the high plains, and the race was in full swing.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

that’s whatever = an emphatic expression of agreement with a preceding comment. “‘Soon as we reach the end of the street we better cut across that hayfield,’ suggested Ned. ‘That’s whatever.’” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

think tank = the brain. “I’ll show them smart boys at the Lazy D I don’t have to take the dust of any of the bunch when it comes to using my think tank.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

thumb = to jab a horse with the thumbs to provoke bucking. “When the man from Shoshone country mounted, his steed was too jaded to attempt resistance. ‘Thumb him! Thumb him!’ the audience cried.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

tow = the coarse and broken part of flax or hemp prepared for spinning. “If a flintlock, the filling was to be taken out and the pan filled with tow or cotton.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

waddy = a rustler, or cowboy. “Along with it went a recital of the crimes he had committed. How he was a noted ‘waddy,’ or cattle-rustler.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Wind River Bible = a catalogue of one of the big Chicago department stores doing a large shipping business in the West. “I see him studying a Wind River Bible yesterday. Curious how in the spring a young man’s fancy gits to wandering on house furnishing.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Nevada Smith (1966)


  1. What year is the term "party call" from? I would assume that it means a telephone call on a party line.

    (When I first started reading "older" Westersn, I remember being surprised at a reference to a telephone in one of Spearman's books).

    1. Yes, there is the occasional telephone in westerns from this period, along with the occasional automobile. "Party call" shows up in Raine's WYOMING, and it seems to refer to a kind of social call in which one person reciprocates to a previous social meeting. A man shows up at a ranch and says to the heroine, "I came over to pay my party call."

  2. I used the same picture of the Sharps rifle in my review of BUCHANAN'S SIEGE for FFB last week. It must have been quite a deadly firearm during the war. Here it nearly helps Tom Buchanan win his against the Cattleman’s Association. The rifle seemed to have been made for mountain man Dan Badger who fearlessly wields the rifle in the story. I ought to pay more attention to forgotten and unusual terms in western fiction.

    1. The length of the muzzle makes that rifle especially imposing. I missed your review; will look for it.