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.”
chokeweed = a weed that chokes other plants. “You’ve growed an’ growed around this country like choke-weed, an’ it’s ter’ble hard to get good an’ started on you.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.
cholo = a derogatory term for a Mexican, especially lower class or mixed blood. “Them cholos was all quiet now, and actin’ as keerful as if that rock was dynamite.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.
chop = to stop. “Oh, chop on yellin’ ’n’ let’s hear!” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.
|Chop house, Toronto, 1866|
chow-chow = a pickled relish made from a combination of vegetables. “These derelicts stood among the long tables laid out with chow-chow and condensed milk (watered in pitchers), shouting coarse stories to one another.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.
chromo = an unattractive person. “Git onto that old chromo; Beach has got a school marm that will stay this time.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.
chrysoprase = a green gemstone. “She had the green eyes of California—the limpid, translucent green of crysoprase.” Gertrude Atherton, Los Cerritos.
chuck it = to give up. “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.
chuck tender = in mining, a workman who replaces drills in the drilling machines. “When ken you go to work? I want a chuck-tender on der night-shift.” Frank Norris, McTeague.
chuck-a-luck = a gambling game played with dice. “And a man's so sick of himself by the time he gets this far that he’d play chuck-a-luck, let alone faro or monte.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.
chunk = to hit with a missile. “He got so hungry for meat he up ’n’ chunks ’n’ kills ’n’ cooks ’n’ eats a porcupine.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.
church privileges = protections granted to churches limiting intrusion by secular authorities. “You are blasphemous, you unconscionable creature! I lament afresh that we are fifty miles from church privileges.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.
cinch = to impose upon; to defeat. “I have it on pretty good authority that the ring is cinching the other companies right and left.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.
cipher = to calculate, think out. “Glad to hear of it. I’ll cipher out somehow to be there.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.
circuit binding = a style of limp-leather binding, used especially for Bibles and prayer books, in which the edges of the cover bend over to protect the edges of the pages. “He waved a hand at the formidable rows of half-calf and circuit bindings in his bookcase.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.
circular = a woman’s cape extending to the bottom of the dress with a hood fitting tight around the face. “He didn’t feel that he could afford a coat, so I’m going to get the cloth and you and I will make you a circular this week.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.
circus type = a display font with circus poster features. “He invented names of men and even States, and at the wind-up proclaimed in circus type that England was about to declare war against the North.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.
clam = mouth. “Close your clams or you will be a cold fritter.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.
clapboards = wainscoting. “Within five years from the time Mrs. Herrick disposed of the clapboards and carpets, the Colonel had put behind him fifteen years at least and excited no interest.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.
Class Day = In American colleges and universities, a day of the commencement season on which the senior class celebrates the completion of its course by exercises conducted by the members, such as the reading of the class histories and poem, the delivery of the class oration, the planting of the class ivy, etc. (from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913). “His first glimpse of her, on Class Day, in a white gown and a hat…had been a vision that stirred in him heroic promptings.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.
|Bertha M. Clay|
Clay, Bertha M. = a writer of love stories and romances for English working-class audiences and Street & Smith’s readers in America (1836-1884). “On a cherry-stained writing-desk lay a novel by Bertha M. Clay.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.
clevis = a U-shaped fastening device secured by a bolt or pin through holes in the two arms. “On six-inch spikes, hung extra clevises, buckles, straps, and such materials as accidents to farm machinery required.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.
clockwork = embroidery or woven work on the side of stockings. “She raised her eye lashes and looked the speaker over from the undertaker’s plumes and the gold teeth and the ash colored V of skin to the clock-work stockings and high heeled slippers.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.
coal trimmer = a position in the engineering department of a coal-fired ship which involves all coal handling tasks, from loading coal into the ship to delivery of coal to the stoker. “The oarsman was my old acquaintance Jim; Jim the ‘engineer’; Jim, ex-coal-trimmer from the White Star Line.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.
|Coal trimmers, 1908|
by his guileless face and cock-a-hoop assurance, that we had not the heart to turn him away.” Horace Annesley Vachell, Bunch Grass.
cocktail = the short watch on herd between supper and dusk. “That evening Steele assigned him to ‘cocktail’.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.
|Chicken Little characters, 1915|
coconut / cocoanut = the head. “I guess you’ll find me quick enough with my hands, whatever you think of my cocoanut.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.
cocotte = a prostitute. “The cocottes were so young and fresh as well as beautiful that to Ora and Ida they looked much like girls of their own class.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.
cod = to tease, hoax. “I thought he was coddin’ me, but I didn’t want to let on to him I didn’t know any better.” William R. Lighton, Uncle Mac’s Nebrasky.
codfish mouthed = open-mouthed; reference to the codfish, which swims with its mouth open. “Pain will teach you how to grip your jaws together and I never heard that a cod-fished-mouthed man was much use.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!
coffee cooler = anyone who lazes around instead of doing his duty. “Lieutenant was say I dam coffee-cooler. Well—I was not.” Frederic Remington, Sundown Leflare.
cold blazer = a bluff. “There was nothing for it but a cold blazer, so I remarked, with a struggle for a grin that made the muscles of my face ache: ‘Well, Mac, you are a flour-flusher!’” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.
cold deck = to cheat, to deceive; dealing from a prepared deck of cards. “That sheriff would never cold-deck no man.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!
cold jawed = a horse that keeps his jaw closed and is likely to get the bit in his teeth and run with it. “And if they didn’t take the bit in their teeth, and go cold jawed with you, though full of thorns, scratched and bleeding, you would find yourself still on your horse when the run was over.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.
cold mit = rejection. “Youse don’t know dat man. He’s never had de cold met yet.” Robert W. Service, The Trail of ’98.
cold-plucked = bold, nervy. “Did you say that? You’re a cold-plucked one, Kent, and I’m coming to admire you.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.
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: James D. Best, The Return