Saturday, September 7, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B
(beat - blackleg)

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.”

beat = an outstanding person or thing. “Ma, did ye ever see the beat? ’N’ a saw-hoss ’n’ a axe, ’n’—’n’ everything!” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

beat the cars = to surpass in every way. “And her paw—though Lord knows who her maw was—a-dressing her to beat the cars.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

beau catcher = a small flat curl of hair worn on the temple. “My mother was making a company for me, putting up my waterfall and curling my beau-catchers.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

beauty for ashes = biblical reference to Isaiah 61:3, “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes.” “Crowding down from the hills into luxuriant masses by the banks of the stream was a gay riot of wild flowers of every hue, as though, for this brief carnival time of summer, Nature had been minded to give beauty for ashes with mad prodigality.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

bedstaff = a wooden pin on the sides of the bedstead to hold the bedclothes from slipping on either side. “I put two and two together in the twinkling of a bedstaff.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

beef = to knock someone down; to slaughter, kill. “I beefed him under the ear, and we took his guns away, sir.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

beer jerker = a drunkard. “You-all kin gamble yer alce all bets would be off with them painted dancehall beer jerkers.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

Belle Mahone, cover
“Belle Mahone” = sentimental ballad by J. H. McNaughton, published 1867. “I dreamt I was dressed up beautiful in a ruffled gown ’n’ hoops ’n’ was a stan’in’ on a platform singin’ Sweet Belle Mahone like a bird in a tree.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

“Belle of Mohawk Vale, The” = a song from c1860 by G. W. Elliott and J. R. Thomas, popular among Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. “When Macie sung, it was The Mohawk Vale ev’ry time.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

“Ben Bolt” = a traditional song based on a poem written by Thomas Dunn English in 1848, set to music by Nelson Kneass in 1848. “She contributed her quota by singing ‘Annie Laurie’ and ‘Ben Bolt.’” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

Benighted Harry
benedict = a newly married man, especially one who has been long a confirmed bachelor; from the character in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. “Your prediction sounds a bit strong from one who is himself a benedict.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

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.

besom = a broom made of twigs tied around a stick. “The Indians would undoubtedly line the banks with riflemen and the island would be swept by bullets as with a besom without delay.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

best bib and tucker = best clothes; originally women’s garments, bib and lace worn over the bodice. “She’d got herself dusted off by then and her best bib and tucker on.” William R. Lighton, Uncle Mac’s Nebrasky.

bet the finger = a type of wager in the game of faro, as explained in Rex Beach’s The SpoilersWhen a man requests this privilege it means that he will call the amount of his wager without producing the visible stakes, and the dealer may accept or refuse according to his judgment of the bettor’s responsibility.

between blankets = sleep. “Corliss yawned in reply. He had been on trail all day and was yearning for between-blankets.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

bias-eyed = slant-eyed; offensive reference to Chinese. “There’s one bias-eyed fan-tanner that won’t pull his freight for Chiny as soon as he gets his pockets full of good American money.” Florence Finch Kelly, With Hoops of Steel.

bidarki = a skin covered boat. “The bearded priest, Mike Azoff, on his year’s round of the bleak coast in his bidarki—marrying, baptizing, burying—having shed his odorous kamaleika for the lavish robes kept in the tiny vestry, had smilingly repeated the rigmarole of his Greek faith.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

biff = a blow, slap, punch. “But Hawk’s next biff was more to the purpose. He came down here with Halkett’s chief clerk, whom he had hauled out of bed, and two policemen.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

big auger = the big boss. “I’m not afraid of any man in your outfit, from the gimlet to the big auger.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

big bug = an important person; one who considers himself so. “A man does not become a political big bug without having some kind of savvy.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

big casino = an idea or asset expected to be a big winner. “Hiram fractured his face with another smile, and I instinctively knew he had big casino.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

big ditch = the Erie Canal; the Atlantic Ocean. “If you don’t get something ’at your pride ’ll earn some day, I’m the biggest fool this side o’ the big ditch.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

bilge = the lowest internal portion of a ship’s or boat’s hull. “An old sailboat lay canted on her bilge.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

bilk = to spoil the expectation of another. “He knows about the contrack an’ he’ll bilk it if he can.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

Bill = reference to a Wild West show, as in Bill-show, Bill-show cowboy, Bill-horse. “You she’d have seen Rusty Mikel, Miss, the time his Bill-hoss turned a flip-flop onto him.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

bird = a first-rate person, animal, thing. “Say! she’s a bird. Little minin’ fever over at Moab. Lot of Eastern men come in there, an’ she picked ’em. Picked ’em clean.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

bird-cage = a prison cell. Now, this lawyer party must get away to-night or these grafters will hitch the horses to him on some phony charge so he cant get to the upper court. Itll be him to the bird-cage for ninety days. Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

Bird's eye maple tabletop
bird’s eye = a small, circular imperfection found most often in maple; heavily favored by professional woodworkers for its unique beauty. “It required three days of hard labor to remove the fifty-two bird’s-eye maple logs to a position of safety.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

birl = to turn a log underfoot as it floats. “They may blow dams and saw booms, but we’ll do them yet. Birl into her, bullies!” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

biscuit shooter = a waitress. “I felt a rising hate for the ruby-cheeked, large-eyed, eating-house lady, the biscuit-shooter whose influence was dimming this jaunty, irrepressible spirit.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

bisnaga = a barrel-shaped cactus with large spines and small flowers, native to the Southwest and northern Mexico. “Gard explained the nature of the bisnaga. If he had cut off the top he would probably have found a quart or two of water.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

bisque = fired, unglazed pottery; used for doll heads. “Bettine, the bisque toy, sat stiffly erect in a go-cart pushed before her.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

bitch = to spoil, ruin. “With an hysterical half-laugh, half-shout, ‘I—I’ll bitch him, bitch him!’—he threw himself into the river after the raft.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

bite it off = to restrain oneself, stop talking. “‘Got it staked and located, too, I suppose,’ the lawyer said, with a sneer. ‘Bite it off, Broome: what are you driving at?’” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

bitt = one of a pair of upright posts on the deck of a ship for fastening cables or ropes. “It came inboard to the bucking clatter of a winch and was made fast to the towing bitts.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

blab = a thin board clipped on a calf’s nose, used for weaning. “I’ll bet she’s gone ‘way past the poll-tax age, and has got a face like a calf with a blab on its nose.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

black-and-tan = derogatory term for someone of mixed race. “The way he gets a bullet onder that black-an’-tan’s left wing don’t worry him a little bit.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Black Book = the Texas Rangers list of fugitives, published annually. We looked the Black Book over afterward for any description of him. At that time there were over four thousand criminals and outlaws described in it. Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

Rudyard Kipling
Black Curse of Shielygh = a fearsome malediction uttered in “The Courting of Dinah Shadd,” a story in Rudyard Kipling’s Life’s Handicap (1891). “Hawk smote the air with a clenched fist and called down the Black Curse of Shielygh, or its modern equivalent, on all the fates subversive of well-laid plans.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

black dog = A bad mood, characterized by anger, depression, or a mixture of the two. “‘Th’ black dog is on him sure enough,’ he observed. ‘Since his dam was blowed up, he has th’ civil word for nobody.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

black knot = a fungal disease of certain varieties of fruit trees. “I’m scairt as the black knot has got inter that orchard o’ yourn, sir.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

black pill = opium. “Faix, ’uts no murder to kill a Chinaman, but a bright jewel in me starry crown, ye long-nailed, rat-eatin’, harrse-haired, pipe-hittin’ slave iv th’ black pill!” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

black snake = a long tapering braided whip of rawhide or leather. “I reaches across an’ belts him some abrupt between the y’ears with the butt of a shot-filled black-snake.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

black willow = a western variety of salix nigra, the tallest willow found in North America. “The mesquite grew here, too; with manzanita and scrub oak, arrow weed, and black willow.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

blackjack = a common scrubby deciduous tree having dark bark and broad three-lobed leaves; tends to form dense thickets. “That fellow is the very trashiest of the poor white trash found in the blackjack thickets, where the ground is so poor that it won’t sprout a ‘goober pea.’” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

blackleg = a quickly fatal disease of young cattle caused by a bacterial infection; symptoms include lameness, loss of appetite, rapid breathing, high fever, and swelling. “They saw a companion die slowly from blackleg, and another practically eaten alive by the fearful screw-worm.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

blackleg = a fashionable dandy. “They teach their girls to choose their husbands for their clothes rather than for their characters, and to think that if they can get a blackleg that keeps his pants brushed and wears a canary neck-tie, and has a rich daddy, to be their husbands, that they’ve done better than if they’d got an honest man that wore a hickory shirt and worked for a living.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

blackleg = a swindler. “I could not understand their language, which was a kind of thieves’ and blacklegs’ jargon.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

Previous: B (B&S - beard)
Next: B (blackman - boodle)

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: How (not) to write a book review


  1. I'm going to have to find the reference, but I believe a blackleg was also a reference to a dishonest gambler.

    Big Casino surely refers to the card game called Casino, similar to blackjack, that my father used to teach us arithmetic. The Big Casino is the ten of diamonds.

    1. Casino was a popular card game in the 40s-50s among the grownups when I was growing up -- before TV invaded. The OE says casino originated in the 18th century and referred to a public music or dancing saloon.

  2. Nelson Kneass got a front row seat to that "Ben Bolt" performance.

  3. Fun list. I particularly enjoyed biscuit shooter

  4. Beau catcher for me. We played Casino all the time.