Saturday, October 5, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: C
(cab - catch a tartar)

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.”

cab = baby carriage. “She took the baby out in his cab to hive him the sun and air.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

cabbage = to pilfer, take possession of by stealth. “‘I can see Briggs City eatin’ the shucks when it comes ’lection day,’ he says, ‘and that Goldstone man cabbagin’ the sheriff’s office.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

caboose = a cookhouse; oven or fireplace. “With tape-line and pegs McKenna laid out the ground plans of bunk-house, eating-camp, caboose, foreman’s quarters, and stables.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

calcium light = limelight; a lamp consisting of a flame directed at a cylinder of lime with a lens to concentrate the light; formerly used for stage lighting. “There will be no villain clothed with a little temporary power to shut the calcium light out of these putrid beds of corruption.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

calf’s head jelly = head cheese; a meat jelly made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig and often set in aspic. “It is a good thing, I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, a very fortunate thing, that I am so amiable, and Gabriel so good a fellow, or else I would have punched his head into calf’s head-jelly, twice a day, many times.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

call the turn = to predict accurately. “That either they or I can learn / A sinner how to call the turn.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

calumet = a highly ornamented ceremonial pipe used by Native American tribes, a  peace pipe. “As the circling smoke rings rose from the sachem’s calumet, the gentle breeze bore them slowly to the southward.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

calzones = breeches, pants. “It appears that he had only has dirty cotton calzones to be buried in, so his wife begged a worn white suit from Mr. Benson.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

Camilla = from Roman legend, a woman warrior who fought on the side of Turnus against Aeneas. “But the sudden shadow of a coyote checked the scouring feet of this swift Camilla, and sent her back precipitately to the buggy.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

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.

Campbellites = any of the religious groups descended from a reform movement in the early 19th century in the United States. “There’s the Baptists given’ the Methodists Hail Columbia, and the Presbyterians sailin’ into the Campbellites.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

cañada = a sheep camp or ranch (from Spanish). “Just the logical disclosures in the case of me and that pink-eyed snoozer from Mired Mule Cañada.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

canary = a mule. “Often when an animal necked to a burro refused to lead or ‘sulled,’ the little canary would blaze away with his heels at the steer, who wouldn’t be long in obeying orders.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

candle box = box with a sliding lid, originally used for storing candles. “When the letters and other contents of the mailbags had been distributed from the porch, and the candle-box, sacred to post-office affairs, shoved back under his own bed, Mr. Crouch returned with renewed zest to his perch on his fence.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

cant-hook = an iron hook at the end of a long handle used for rolling logs. “Ole, that big Swede, is chain lightning on a cant-hook.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

cap-a-pie = head to foot. “In a week the J7 was cap-a-pie – fourteen cow-punchers, two horse wranglers, a capable cook, wagons stocked with grub.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.

cap of liberty = a close-fitting conical cap used as a symbol of liberty by the French revolutionists and in the U.S. before 1800; a name given to similar mountain formations. “‘Don’t forget the look,’ breathed Bob into Gail’s ear, each crouching on their hands and knees. ‘Shaped like a pointed cap o’ liberty, tilted to the west.’” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Liberty Cap, Yosemite
cap the climax = to exceed what is already a high point of achievement. “It just about capped the climax to see a man o’ my build totin’ along a pair o’ chickens.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

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

capper = an accomplice in a gambling game who works to swindle other players. “The furtive glance which the dealer exchanged with his charming ‘capper’ now and then, was sufficient to enable even one of my limited experience to form a correct conclusion as to the status of affairs.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

cap sheaf = the top sheaf of a stack of grain; the crowning or finishing part of a thing. “‘Ricker’s going to say grace. This’ll put on the cap sheaf,’ his next neighbor whispered to Penrose.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Maguey with carajo stem
caracole = a half-turn on horseback, to left or right. “The horses caught the infection of excitement from the packed stands and champed on their bits and caracoled and waltzed sideways in a manner highly unbecoming a staid cow-pony.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

carajo pole = a goad or walking stick made from the tall, upright stem of the maguey, a type of agave. “Th’ boss music-maker on a perch in th’ middle of th’ bunch, shakin’ a little carajo pole to beat hell at any of th’ outfit that wa’n’t workin’ to suit him.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

caravansera = an inn. “It became no uncommon occurrence for Andy P. Symes to whisk Augusta into a caravanserai where the gentlemen patrons ate large, filling plates of griddle cakes with their hats on.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

cárcel = jail, prison (from Spanish). “As night set in, we approached the cárcel. The turnkey answered our questions very politely through a grated iron door.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

cards and spades = a liberal handicap. “There was a time when I could draw a gun an’ drive a nail in the wall. I was quick, but there was lots that could give me cards and spades.” Robert W. Service, The Trail of ’98.

cariole = a small, open, two- or four-wheeled carriage drawn by one horse. “He told him the news and saw Jacques jump into the cariole and drive away.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

carreta = oxcart. “After nine days’ forced march, made chiefly by night, the Mexicans brought their crazy old carreta safely into the post.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

Carreta, 1900
carry = the range of a gun. “He took a gun with a’ extra long carry and put a lead pill where it’d do the most good.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

carry a load = to be intoxicated, drunk. “You’re actin’ locoed. Guess you’re carryin’ your load yet.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

cartwheel hat = a woman’s hat with a low crown and a wide stiff brim. “Eleanor took a quick glance at her neighbors, all men but the cart-wheel-hat to one side and a little young-old lady opposite.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

caryatid = a supporting column sculptured in the form of a draped female figure. “She proposed a bewildering choice—an inverted wash-tub, two buckets sustaining the relation of caryatides to a board, the sheet-iron cooking stove.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

case-hardened = made callous or insensitive. “Men with the ferocious hunger of the wolf, and the case-hardened stomach of the ostrich.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

case-keeper = a faro dealer’s assistant, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers: “It is customary for the case-keeper to sit on the opposite side of the table from the dealer, with a device before him resembling an abacus, or Chinese adding machine. When a card is removed from the faro-box by the dealer, the ‘hearse-driver’ moves a button opposite a corresponding card on his little machine, in order that the players, at a glance, may tell what spots have been played or are still in the box.”

case-player = a faro player, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers, who bets money “only on the final pair, thus avoiding the chance of two cards of like denomination coming together, in which event (‘splits’ it is called) the dealer takes half the money.”

cash boy = in large retail stores, a messenger who carried customers’ money from salespersons to the cashier and returned with the change. “He was interested in the triumphs of these cash boys who had become famous, though he had no mind for the cash-boy stage.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

Sugar castors
Castilla = a Havana cigar. “I prefer the pipe myself, for a steady thing; but at this time of night a light Castilla fits me pretty well.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

castor/caster = a small container with holes in the top, used for sprinkling sugar or pepper. “I feel honored; there’s my mother’s old silver castor.” Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party.

castor = a hat. “That was the only time Tib ever shied his castor into a ring.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

cat = to vomit. “I do not believe these people ever take a bawth. I’ll have to chuck it or I’ll cat.” Marion Reid-Girardot, Steve of the Bar-G Ranch.

cat claw = a tree native to the Southwest with hooked thorns the shape and size of a cat’s claw that tend to hook onto passers-by. “They were picking their way carefully through clusters of murderous catclaw.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

cat-hammed = said of a horse with long, thin, insufficiently muscled thighs. “Their gaunt, hammer-headed, grass-bellied, cat-hammed, roach-backed ponies went with them when they took their departure.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

cat hop = in the game of faro, when two of three cards left in the dealing box during the last turn were of the same denomination. “Thar’s nothin’ left in the box but beans, coffee, an’ beans. It’s a cat-hop, but it can’t be he’ped none.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

catamaran = a quarrelsome woman. “There are lots of old catamarans around me all the time to tell on me.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

catch a crab = in rowing, to make a faulty stroke by failing to make contact with the water or plunging the oar blade in too deeply. “The boatman shot nervily across her bow, and just as he was clear, unfortunately, caught a crab.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

catch a tartar = to lay hold of or encounter a person who proves too strong for the assailant. “They had not noticed me and they proceeded to hold up the agent in true western style, but that they had caught a tartar was evidenced by the rattle of the agent’s artillery.” Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.

Previous: B (buck ague - "By the Sad Sea Waves")
Next: C (catchpenny - choker)

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: Thomas D. Clagett, The Pursuit of Murieta


  1. I read the other day that slang phrases are turning over faster these days than they used to, but man the west certainly spawned a lot of phrases and terms that mean very different things today.

    1. As I rule, I believe, slang is often an old word put to a new use. The older meaning tends to stick around longer.

  2. Always enjoy these and miss the colorful language.

  3. "Cab" is actually short for cabriolet, a type of horse-drawn carriage that also gave its name to taxi-cab (taximeter cabriolet). "Cap a pie" I think must be a corruption of cap a pied or head to foot.

    1. "Cab" as short for "cabriolet" sounds likely. For "cap a pie" I'm going by the OED. Thanks again.

  4. Ron, this is getting interesting with each alphabet. The meanings of some of these words like "castor" and "catamaran" are so different from what I know them to be now. I am paying more attention to language in early westerns.

  5. Remington uses some very descriptive language under "cat-hammed". Must have been terrible looking horses.

  6. Calf’s head jelly could be a sequel to the Stone's Goat's Head Soup.