Saturday, August 31, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B
(B&S - beard)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880-1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

B&S = brandy and soda. “Let's go somewhere for a B & S, and find out about each other.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

back channel = the smaller of two channels in a river that diverge to form an island. “The next island below Split-up was known as Roubeau’s Island, and was separated from the former by a narrow back channel.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

back-firing = running someone out of the country. “‘They ain’t only one thing’ll stop him.’ Tough Nut looked cunningly suggestive…‘Say, back-firin’. Savey?’” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

back log = a large log at the back of a fire in a fireplace. “Now, you see this back log in the center of my blankets is the dead line between us.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

Back of Beyond = any real or imagined remote region; first put into print by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Antiquary (1816). “How absurd you are! Who ever dreamed of such a thing? This isn’t the Back of Beyond.” John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman.

back-setting = turning broken sod back to its original place with additional fresh soil to cover it. “I was back-setting the thirty acres down by the lake when I heard a shot an’ a yell.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

backcapper = someone who openly or quietly maligns others, and is therefore despicable. “Some of the backcappers will be telling you presently that I was a train despatcher over in God’s country, and that I put two trains together.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

backing it = to be laid up, ill. “The cook was mighty good to me while I was backin’ it; he used to deal out fussy little fixin’s ’at kept the appetite and the fever both down.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

bad cess to = may evil befall. “‘Red Slavin, bad cess to him!’ and her eyes regarded her questioner with renewed anxiety.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

Bad man from Bodie = a mythical hell raiser from Bodie, California, a gold mining boomtown, 1878-1880. “Like ‘the bad man from Bodie,’ fear to him is an unknown quantity, and the greater the danger the more desperate he seems to become.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 30 July 1881.

bail = an arched handle, such as on a bucket or a teapot. “The bread was cut and spread, the coffee put in a small bucket, and a string of tin cups was tied to its bail.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

Bain wagon = a high-wheeled utility wagon produced from 1840 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “A number of saddle-horses and Bain wagons and lighter vehicles were hitched to the rail fence in front of the house.” Frances McElrath, The Rustler.

baize = a bright green fabric napped to resemble felt; used to cover gaming tables. “The little man arose and came hesitatingly forward to the baize-covered table that served as a pulpit.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Balaam, Rembrandt
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.

bald-faced shirt = white dress shirt. “He keeps a room and his best duds here all the time, and the first thing he does after he strikes town is to go and put on a bald-faced shirt and a long-tailed coat.” Florence Finch Kelly, With Hoops of Steel.

bald-headed = acting suddenly or without careful consideration. “He went at every problem by the light of nature—‘bald-headed,’ as the saying is—in furious attack.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

bally = an intensifier; cf. bloody. “Don’t be a bally fool and buck into a buzz-saw!” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

balmy on the crumpet = insane, demented, eccentric. “Balmy on the crumpet. Bats in his belfry. Qualifying for Queer Street. Plumb crazy. Poor old Lucky!” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

banana belt = a region with a comparatively warm climate. “The banana belt. Old Sol working overtime. Blossom and fruit cavorting on the same tree. Eternal summer.” Robert W. Service, The Trail of ’98.

bangtailed = a horse or other animal with its tail cropped square. “He rode upon a diminutive flat saddle on a bangtailed roan.” Frances McElrath, The Rustler.

banking grounds = in logging, the area along the shoreline for holding felled timber. “All went merry as a marriage bell, and the quantity of logs pouring down to the banking grounds attested the quality of the work done.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

Saloon with bar towels
bannock = a round, flat, thick griddle-cake, made from oatmeal, barley, or flour; a wedge of it is called a scone. “A white man that can cook hates to stay sober long enough to build a bannock.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

bant = to reduce one’s weight by dieting. “‘Bah, you’ve been banting!’ the doctor exclaimed, pulling out his white gloves as he searched for his handkerchief and throwing them into a chair.” Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark.

bar towel = a complimentary towel hanging from the bar in a saloon to wipe the foam from patrons' mustaches. “‘Cupid’s drunk,’ says Monkey Mike. ‘Somebody’s hit him with a bar-towel.’” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld
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.

Barbauld, Anna Laetitia = prominent English poet, essayist, and children’s author (1743-1825). “Mrs. Barbauld’s hymn, ‘Flee as a Bird to the Mountain,’ are the words usually sung to the air.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

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.

Benjamin Franklin King, Jr.
bark camp = a shelter consisting of a shoulder-high framework of stakes and poles, with a roof and sidings of bark, usually from small pine trees. “Outside the wind rose and the rain dripped, but the bark camp was comfortable.” S. Carleton Jones, Out of Drowning Valley.

barker = a pistol. “My barker’s mighty light in the trigger.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

Barmecide = a member of a noble Persian family who, according to a tale in The Arabian Nights, gave a beggar a pretended feast with empty dishes; a meal that looks good but doesn't come up to expectations. “Supper was a mockery to them, a Barmecide feast.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Aleut barrabara, 1914
barrabara = an Eskimo home. “Half sunk underground, the native barrabaras, with their rotted logs patched or gaping, and on each mud roof a brown wrack of tall weeds, now seemed floating away on its glazy surface.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

barranca = a deep ravine or gorge. “They were traveling along the edge of a deep barranca that yawned in the desert.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

base burner = furnace or stove in which the fuel is contained in a hopper or chamber, and is fed to the fire as the lower layer is consumed.. “I am going to buy a base-burner for the parlor, and have a drum put in its pipe in the room above, and we won’t have to sleep off the kitchen.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

basket chair = a chair made of wickerwork, a wicker chair. “Then he lounged into his basket chair and rubbed his fleshy hands reflectively.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

basket of chips = a basket made of thin strips of wood interwoven or joined; title of a collection of anecdotes and poems (1888) by noted humorist and poet Joseph Bert Smiley (1864-1903). “My young man carried my carpet bag when I changed cars and saw me aboard all right, as polite as a basket of chips.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

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.

bateau = a flat-bottomed riverboat. “The men in the bateau looked, and there, almost in the middle of the stream, was the greener leaping from log to log.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

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.

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.

bazoo = mouth. “It ain’t been usual for me to blow my own bazoo to any extent.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

bean = a foolish, silly notion. “What’s the matter with you these days, Mac? You got a bean about somethun, hey? Spit ut out.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

bean hole = a hole in the ground lined with stones or bricks that is heated to serve as a slow-baking oven, especially for beans. “‘Gar-rub!’ called Mac from the bean-hole, as he lifted the cover from the dutch-oven in a cloud of steam.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

bear grass = a flowering grass-like plant, growing in bunches and native to western North America; long used by Native Americans to weave baskets; also known as squaw grass, soap grass, and quip-quip.  “Behind a clump of bear-grass crouched a coyote, his foxlike nose pointed toward the spot where snoozed her unprotected son.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

bear sign = doughnuts. “‘You’ll come with me first,’ says I, ‘for an oyster stew and some bear sign. I ain’t ate since sun-up.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

beard = to confront boldly. “He felt that Mark would not risk bearding both himself and Dan Mayne on their own ground.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.

Previous: A
Next: B (beat - blackleg)

Sources: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and various online dictionaries

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Johnny Boggs, Spark on the Prairie, review and interview


  1. Concerning the use of bar towels, certainly one of their uses was for wiping foam off the drinker's face. But I always thought they were used more for cleaning spills and wiping the section of the bar where you were eating or drinking.

    1. Could be, though I'd assume that to be the barkeeper's job.

  2. So many common terms and yet their meaings are so different. "Backing it" was a revelation while "Beard" was the only one I got right.

  3. I've known a backcapper or two over the years - backstabber.

  4. It might be worth distinguishing between exclusively or largely Western terms- like "barb wire" or "Bad Man from Bodie" (i'm surprised you haven't mentioned Doctorow's novel), obsolete(?) terms like "Barmecide" or "bally" and others still current like "back of beyond" or "basket chair"- as an Englishman, I was a bit surprised either needed explanation

    1. I take your point, Roger. The terms here come from my reading of early frontier fiction. The only rule of thumb is that they were terms I had to look up. A few, like back of beyond, I know the meaning of and use, but with blog readers scattered across most of the continents, I haven't assumed everyone would share the same familiarity.

      BAD MAN FROM BODIE may have been published in the U.S. as WELCOME TO HARD TIMES, which I read many years ago and have considered rereading for the blog. It was also made into a film by that name with Henry Fonda.

    2. I don't know either- an exclusively Western glossary would be useful- but would take up so much time that other work would have to be dropped.

      I enjoyed Doctorow's book, many years ago, but I remember particularly an interview with Doctorow where he said he'd never been near Texas when he wrote it, and he had his hero dine off the haunch of a prairie-dog- which would be about the size of a teaspoon. Rivalling Holly Martin's snake-charmers in Texas as a blunder.

    3. Roger, I remember the novel as an anti-western and as challenging the national mythology of the West we'd been used to at the time from the movies and TV. But a lot has changed since then, and given Doctorow's way with history, as in RAGTIME, I'm guessing the novel would yield a different reading today.

  5. I wonder if "bald-faced" shirt was a corruption of "boiled" shirt, ie a clean garment.

    Basque style bodices became fashionable in the hoop-skirt era and remained in style until the turn of the century. Because they were made to fit closely to the figure, they were also referred to as "corset waists."

  6. I wonder if "bald-faced" shirt was a corruption of "boiled" shirt, ie a clean garment.

    Basque style bodices became fashionable in the hoop-skirt era and remained in style until the turn of the century. Because they were made to fit closely to the figure, they were also referred to as "corset waists."

    (The one 20th century reference to bar towels that comes to mind is the scene in "The Quiet Man" where John Wayne and Victor McLaglen have fought their way through the village, reached the pub, and McLaglen tosses a glass of beer into Wayne's face. Wayne spits and says curtly "Bar towel!")

    1. I shall look for that the next time the movie plays at TCM. I agree with you about bald and boiled.