Saturday, August 17, 2013

Old West cuss words

We don't really know much about strong language on the frontier. That there was plenty of cussing is attested to by all the references to it in contemporary fiction. The closest writers venture to the unprintable is in the mild oaths and euphemisms permited in polite or mixed company. Here are a few to be found in a reading of novels published 100 years ago.

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.

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

blam-jam = mild expletive for “damned.” “We can’t get that blam-jam handcar up to Palisade and back without somethin’ more’n four-man power.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

by ginger = a mild oath. “We know it’s a bad school, but, by ginger! we’ll see that you’re stood by.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

by grabs = a mild oath. “Three groans for the land syndicates, alien mortgagees, and the Western Pacific Railroad, by grabs! and to hell with ’em!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

by Harry = a mild expletive. “‘By Harry,’ cried Wayland, ‘that mule does smell water.’” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

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.

by James = a mild oath. “‘By—James!’ swore Gowan, dropping his guitar and springing up to confront Ashton with deadly menace in his cold eyes.” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.

by jing = a mild oath. “‘I’ll do it, by jing!’ he exclaimed.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

by Josh and by Joan = a mild expletive. “By Josh and by Joan, but it’s a shame, a dirty shame, it is!” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

by the great horn spoon = an emphatic expression, origin disputed. “Here, waiter, by the great horn spoon, I’ve got to have another drink!” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

by the Lord Harry = a mild oath. “By the Lord Harry, Crooks, Ackerman is a director of the Peninsular Railway, of the Commercial Bank, and of the Northern Loan Company!” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

by the Mortal = a mild oath. “By the Mortal! The moon’s high, an’ the travelin’s good. Come on, bullies, we’ll burn them out of their bunks this night!” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

chariots of fire = an emphatic expression; reference to airborne modes of transportation associated in the Old Testament with the divinity. “It looked like a put-up job, all right; an’ chariots of fire, but he was mad!” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

d. f. / dee-fool = damned fool. “Air you a-jumpin’ on us ’cause Marthy Thomas is a d.f.?” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

dang my melt = literally, damn me; dang me (from melt = spleen). “Dang my melt if I can see how them wild-catters can keep on takin’ money from folks.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

ding = damn. “‘That girl is in it, somehow,’ he muttered. ‘Ding the women. They’re in everything.’” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

dodgasted = a mild oath for God blasted.” “You’d made all sorts of a dodgasted fool outer me.” Horace Annesley Vachell, Bunch Grass.

geeswax = a mild expletive for “Jesus.” “If ’twould ease the Parson any to talk, by geeswax, he would stand it!” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

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.

go to hell across lots = a curse sending someone directly to eternal punishment. “He was ready to ‘unsheathe his bowie knife’ and send apostates ‘to hell across lots.’” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

go to Jericho = a euphemism for “go to hell.” “‘You go to Jericho, will you!’ snaps Jabez. ‘You don’t need to think that I’d try to argue any man on earth into workin’ for me.’” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

goodness godness = a mild oath. “Luckily a woman don’t have the least trouble findin’ out a man’s weak points, and Greg has a few, thank the goodness godness.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

goose = a mild expletive. “I guess I don’t like being turned down for once. Goose.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

gosh a livin’s = a mild oath. “‘Gosh-a-livin’s!’ he exclaimed as a new thought struck him.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

gosh all fish hooks = a mild oath. “The major knows what he’s talkin’ ’bout. Gosh all fish hooks!” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

gosh all Friday = a euphemism for “God Almighty.” “Why, Gosh all Friday, what’s happened to your horse?” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

gosh all hemlock = a mile expletive. “‘Gosh all hemlock!’ he exclaimed, lost to any consideration of his words in the wild excitement that possessed him.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

Hannah = euphemism for the deity; used in various mild oaths, e.g. so help me Hannah. “How in the name o’ Hanner they manage to keep so fat, I can’t see.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

hully gee = a mild oath (“Holy Jesus”) associated after 1895 with early cartoon character The Yellow Kid in R. F. Otcault’s Hogan’s Alley. “Women are hully-gees for stirrin’ up rows!” Frances McElrath, The Rustler.

Jerusalem crickets = a mild expletive. “‘Jerusalem crickets!’ was his comment as he measured the aim.” Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K&A Train Robbery.

Jink = a mild oath. “Where the Jink did you meet up with him?” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

lawsy = a mild oath expressing surprise, astonishment, or strength of feeling. “‘Jimminy, but your room’s pretty!’ exclaimed Ida. ‘Mine’s pink—but lawsy!” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

tarnal = damned (used as an intensifer; cf. “tarnation”). “I understand too tarnal well. If I had my way I’d kick his ornery carcass out of this house.” John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman.

tunk = all-purpose euphemism for “hell, “Devil,” etc. “How in tunk did he ever git where he is now?” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

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 
Illustrations by Stanley L. Wood, Charles Russell, Charles Edwin Fripp, and William Herbert Dunton

Coming up: Richard Wheeler, Eclipse: A Novel of Lewis and Clark


  1. I noticed that Dane Coolidge used the phrase "By grab" in several novels. ADVENTURE magazine would not even use "hell" or "damn" in the 1920's. They put a slash instead which only enabled me to use a stronger cuss word!

    1. In preceding decades, the practice in novels was typically to use euphemisms. Only occasionally were dashes used, like d--d. But an early Zane Grey novel has only dashes: --- -- - -----. It would be interesting to know the negotiations over this issue between writers and editors back then. Will Murray's WORDSLINGERS might shed some light.

  2. Great list - you got some I missed in my "Fighting Words" column! Most of those seemingly nonsense words were euphemisms for God or Jesus Christ or the Devil, too - Jerusalem Crickets, for example, would translate as Jesus Christ.

  3. Then there's Owen Wister's legendary confrontation in The Virginian: Trampas says, "Your bet, you son of a..."
    And the Virginian places his revolver on the table and says, "When you call me that, smile." (I'm quoting from memory here; hope I have it right.)

    1. Good addition, and I believe you can trust your memory on this one.

  4. My brother-in-law used "gosh all fish hooks" throughout his life instead of swearing.

    1. It was (and maybe still is) a favorite of one of my aunts.

  5. Lawsy, what a great list!! Thanks, Ron! Noted a few to use.

  6. You know,I've actually said "Bad Cess" a time or two. Not quite sure where I got it.

  7. Scarlett tells Rhett to go to Halifax in Gone With The Wind.

    1. Good one. Thanks for the movie connection. I'm wondering if it came from the novel.

  8. How do you say a strong variation of Dat gum it?I can't seem to write a comment that's not automatically deleted,regardless of how much I dance around the question.......thanks for your blog!

  9. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that.
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  10. Holy Jumped Up Dying Dora. My dad used it but I thing he got it from Grand Dad,

  11. I play golf with a retired three star general who absolutely refuses to utter a single curse word no matter how badly he plays. He uses "SUGAR!" when he wishes to express his anger. I respect that. D. M. Haggard, Author