Saturday, October 12, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: C
(catchpenny – choker)

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.”

catchpenny = made to sell readily at a low price, regardless of value or use. “With his catch-penny plausibility, his thin-spread good-fellowship, and his New York clothes, he mistook himself for a respectable man.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

catkins = a usually dense, cylindrical, often drooping cluster of flowers found in willows, birches, and oaks. “Soft, wet and tender, with a faint green filming the sodden pasture field, and a rose-pink veil covering the maples, and blue-grey catkins tinting the dark alders, spring had come.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

catspaw = a person used as a tool by another. “Be sure that she is promised something she thinks worth her while, by Bob or by Moore, for her sudden interest in politics and—Charlie Blair. She is a good catspaw.” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

cavayard = a group of saddle horses, remuda. “They’d go right out and make Amalon look like a whole cavayard of razor-hoofed buffaloes had raced back and forth over it.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

cave canem = beware the dog. “From behind their barrier of thorns, every plant and shrub bristling a cave canem to the tactless marauders who should seek to prey upon them.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

Celestial = a Chinese person; derives from Celestial Empire, an ancient name for China. “And when the angry Celestial had gone he lay back in his chair, and laughed till he was weak.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

cellaret = a case for holding wine bottles and decanters, often built as part of a sideboard. “He crossed to the table and, springing the silver catch of a tiny door, cunningly empaneled in the wall, selected from the cellaret a long-necked, cut-glass decanter.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

chaffing = teasing, bantering (also chaffering). “I was prepared to hear a good deal of chaffing about getting lost.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold.

Chaos and Old Night = a scene of wreckage and confusion; reference to deities in John Milton’s Paradise Lost who reign over the realm of Anarchy that lies between Heaven and Hell. “[description of a trainwreck] Chaos and Old Night: a pile of scrap with a hole torn in the middle of it as if by an explosion, and a fire going.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

chariots of fire = an emphatic expression; reference to usually 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.

charivari = a  noisy mock serenade, typically performed by a group of people in celebration of a marriage (also spelled “shivaree”). “The next night about sixty of the white neighbors gave us a charivari and my wife was much pleased to know there was no color prejudice among them.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest.

charro = a Mexican horseman or cowboy, typically one wearing an elaborate outfit, often with silver decorations, of tight trousers, ruffled shirt, short jacket, and sombrero. “In their motley uniforms, regulation khaki or linen alternating with tight charro suits and peon cottons, they were exceedingly picturesque.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

chase-me-Charley = a high jump game for horses and their riders. “He’s a chase-me-Charley, come-and-kiss-me tiger from the zoo.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

chassez = in quadrille dancing, a movement of dancers sideways in a straight line, to the right or left. “‘All chaw hay!’ he would blithely cry, when a chassez was in order.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

Chatelaine and attachments
chatelaine = a belt with short chains for attaching keys, watches, sewing items, scissors, note pads, pencils, button hooks, and other household items. “Marcus Schouler—after impressing upon Trina that his gift was to her, and not to McTeague—had sent a chatelaine watch of German silver.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

chechawko / cheechako = Chinook jargon for newcomer in the mining districts of northwestern North America. “Now who’s this chee-charka coming up the trail?” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

check = a counter, token, chip. “He found he had only one red check, when the game closed.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

check rack = the tray that hold the chips for a game. “He’s sufferin’ an’ has got to be recovered if it takes the entire check-rack.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

check rein = a short rein that extends from a horse’s bit to the saddle, to prevent a horse from lowering its head. “Donoghue pulled his hat down on his head, caught the check-rein with his left and clapped his right hand to the high, round pommel.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

cheek = to address in an impudent or insolent manner. “I kin cheek yer now I’m goin’ ter be hanged by U. S. law!” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

cheese / cheese it = stop, leave off, be quiet. “Cheese that cussing, do you hear?” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

cheese-headed = brainless, stupid. “Seems to me any parrotic, cheese-headed fool might a-seen he wan’t ’ere a hour ago.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

Chevaux-de-frise, 1864

chemisette = a woman’s garment of linen, lace, or the like, worn, toward the end of the Victorian era, over a low-cut or open bodice to cover the neck and breast. “Under pretense of admiring the hand-made lace edging on the girl’s chemisette, she managed another peep and saw the leather worked with Gordon’s monogram in gold.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

chevaux-de-frise = an obstacle composed of barbed wire or spikes attached to a wood frame, used to block enemy advancement. “Door and bridge together were encircled by a chevaux-de-frise of woodwork with sharp, radiating points of heavy telegraph wire.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

chewing wax = chewing gum. “I’m agoin’ to stick to this well like chawin’ wax to a cheer.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

Chicago burner = a hanging lamp. “Above this table six huge ‘Chicago burners’ lighted the interior.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

Poster for Chickering pianos, 1918
Chickering = American piano manufacturer located in Boston, founded in 1823. “A Chickering upright stood in one corner, strangely contrasting with the rude sideboard-table, which was supported by pins fastened in the wall.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

chico = a long-lived, evergreen tree native to southern Mexico and Central America, commonly known as sapodilla. “In a few moments they reached a long, meandering arroyo, with tall chicos on either side.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

chin = talk, chatter, conversation. “One of the eatin’-house gals tole me, confidential, that Up-State had lots of little chins with Macie acrosst the lunch-counter.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

chinch bug = small black-and-white insect that feeds on cereal grasses. “He frequently prophesied as to a scourge of grasshoppers,—of chinch-bugs,—of hot winds, but seldom foretold a rain.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

chink = to fill up gaps or spaces, such as in a log wall. “At length he got them into the stable, chinked the broken feed-boxes as best he could, and removed the bridles.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

chirk = to make cheerful. “With Macie fixed to go (far’s money went), and without makin’ friends with me, neither, what under the shinin’ sun could chirk me up?” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

chirky = cheerful, happy. “Horace didn’t have any upliftin’ words to match the Friar’s; but he had some chirky little ways which were mighty comfortin’.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

chloral hydrate = a widely used sedative in the late 19th century. “Kent was walking the floor of his room, trying vainly to persuade himself that virtue was its own reward, and wondering if a small dose of chloral hydrate would be defensible under the cruel necessity for sleep.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

chlorodyne = a patent medicine invented in the 19th century as a treatment for cholera, diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia, and migraines; a mixture of laudanum, tincture of cannabis, and chloroform. “The foreman noted the victims of his strategy, issued them chlorodyne from the van, and kept his mouth shut.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

choke-bored = the manufacture of a shotgun barrel with a constriction towards the muzzle end to reduce the area of concentration of pellets, perfected by 19th-century English gunsmith, W.W. Greener. “It was choke-bored, Mrs. Ravell. At eighty-yards it would put every shot inside of a three-foot circle.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

choke off = to silence or get rid of someone, stop a person’s activities. “Choke it off! He’s staying with Missionary Williams at the Indian School, and you know about how much love is lost between Williams and Moyese.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

choker = a clerical collar. “We could go to a man in a black coat an’ a white choker, an’ perhaps, a good many of us found out that was all there was to his spirituality.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

Choker used in logging, 1941
choker = in logging, a short steel cable with a loop at one end and a hook at the other, used for hauling logs. “Sandry was standing beside it, but the girl passed him without a glance, running to where the foreman set a choker.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.


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 D. Boggs, East of the Border


  1. I think "chaffing" is used even today for the meaning is the same. I'd be at a loss as to how to use many of these terms in a sentence. Chirpy might be a variant of "chirky."

  2. Chloral hydrate was the famed ingredient of the Mickey Finn, and slipped into drinks by barkeeps. A Mickey might precede a robbery or even a shanghai on the Barbary Coast. The term probably came into currency early in the 20th century. I've used chloral hydrate in my novels. But I suspect that some readers consider my novels to be Mickey Finns in their own right.

  3. "choke-bored." Thank you; I ran across that a few months ago.

    I don't know if they're around today, but from personal experience the Marines were still using chevaux de frise in the 1980's, I remember seeing one by the gate at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, CA.

  4. Love the variants on chivaree. I wonder if they were more regional than anything else.

    1. The OED lists it as a French word, origin unknown.