Saturday, November 2, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: C
(cove – cymlin)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading offrontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

cove = a fellow, chap. “He’s a lazy old cove, dad is.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

“Cowboy’s Lament” = title of a song, also known as “Streets of Laredo.” “They tried all the old favorites, the ‘Cow-boy’s Lament’ being chief among them.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains. Listen here.

cowrie = a marine mollusk having a smooth, glossy, domed shell with a long narrow opening, typically brightly patterned. “You’ve seen her wax flowers? Yes; and the shell table with ‘Bless our Home’ on it, in pink cowries?” Horace Annesley Vachell, Bunch Grass.

crab = to spoil, upset, ruin. “Moncrossen is afraid I will crab his bird’s-eye game—and I will, too, when the proper time comes.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

crack a bottle = have a drink. “He could play two deuces pat at bluff, / Could ‘crack a bottle,’ or ‘blow his stuff.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

crack a cap = to fire a bullet. “‘If one of you-alls so much as cracks a cap,’ he says, ‘I blows the head offen this yere blessed child.’” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

crack-loo  = a form of gambling in which coins are tossed high into the air with the object having one's coin land nearest a crack in the floor,. “Then they would order three or four new California saddles from the storekeeper, and play crack-loo on the sidewalk with twenty-dollar gold pieces.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

cracksman = burglar. “His name only led on to some tale of another brigand, train-robber, hold-up man; or some horse-thief, brand-faker; or townsmen (for I was not the only man at the Triangle who had begun life in a city) would tell of some cracksman.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

crammer = a lie. “‘Poor child!’ Mrs. Leslie patted her shoulder. ‘But why did you tell her such crammers?’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1851
Cranford = a town in a series of novels by English author Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865). “Even now her own letters to Peter were no sprightly scrawl of passing events, but efforts whose seriousness suggested, at least in their carefully elaborated stage of structure, the letters of the ladies of Cranford.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

cranky = eccentric. “He told his friends at the saloon that although his wife was cranky and queer, still she always had a good warm supper ready for him when he came home at night.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

crash = a coarse kind of linen used for towels. “The babe, wrapped in a coarse crash towel, lay in the hollow of the little mother’s arm.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

crawfish = to back down, run away. “He's took his stand, and done what he allowed was right. After that, he aint built to crawfish.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

crawl = to assault. “I jus’ had a battle with Angel. He says he’s goin’ to crawl Slim Caldwell.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

crawl someone’s hump = to attack, assault. “If you insists on pushin’ along through here I’ll turn in an’ crawl your hump some.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Crème Yvette = a very sweet violet-flavored liqueur. “At the bar Heise and Ryer ordered cocktails, Marcus called for a ‘crème Yvette’ in order to astonish the others.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

Cretonne covered chair
cretonne = a heavy cotton material in colorfully printed designs, used especially for drapery and slipcovers. “Temptations to feminine purchasers taking the more domestic form of babies’ knitted hoods and sacques, crash toweling, and the newest patterns in cretonne.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

crib = a house or other living place (US Black); more general usage: a saloon, gambling den, or whorehouse. “After a few days rest with the boys, resting up, I made tracks in the direction of my own crib in Arizona.” Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.

croaker = killjoy, complainer, pessimist. “Her joy was mine, and I would not be the croaker to cast the first shadow over her sunshine.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

cross fencing = fence lines that divide pastures within a piece of property. “There were many miles of it, inclosing some twenty thousand acres of grazing-land, and the cross-fencing of the oat, alfalfa, fruit, and vegetable acreage.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

cross-lots = by a short cut (across the fields or vacant lots instead of by the road or sidewalk). “When they can’t find no gate to come at you, they ups an’ pushes down a panel of fence, an’ lays for you, cross-lots.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

cross vine = an evergreen, tendril-bearing woody vine native chiefly to the southeast United States and having showy red-orange, trumpet-shaped flowers. “If you smoked opium as the nervous Cherokee Indian smokes cross vine, I might recommend you because, while it might make you stupid, enervated, and dreamy, your sins would be probably only of omission.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

crown sheet = the upper sheet and hottest part of the inner firebox on a locomotive boiler. “There is about one chance in a thousand that Callahan’s crown-sheet won’t get red-hot and crumple up on him in the last twenty miles.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

crucifixion thorn = an intricately branched shrub with thick, rigid, sharp branches and no leaves. “A great spike of the long, tough crucifixion-thorn had somehow become imbedded in the flesh, and the whole surface of the shoulder was swollen and inflamed.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

Horse with crupper
crupper = a strap buckled to the back of a saddle and looped under the animal's tail to prevent the saddle or harness from slipping forward. “These indispensable burros have a little frame called a pack-saddle buckled upon their backs, covered with rings and ropes with which to tie the load securely, with a crupper under the tail.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

cuchillo = a knife (from Spanish). “Through his sash was thrust the inevitable murderous-looking cuchillo—the symbol of his individuality.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

cuddy = small room, closet, or cupboard. “In that cuddy, with the uppermost log lying a foot or more above and across him, was the baby.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

cultus = bad (Chinook). “Cultus man come at night. Dark. Black. No see um.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

cup custard = custard baked and served in ceramic or glass cookware. “She even cultivated a taste for tea, which heretofore she had regarded as fit for invalids only, like jellies and cup-custard.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

cupboard love = a show of affection motivated by selfishness. “‘Uncle Jake is puffectly rediclous,’ replied Gloriana gaily. ‘His love is cupboard love.’” Horace Annesley Vachell, Bunch Grass.

curate’s egg = something with both good and bad qualities. “Sometimes I wish she had been less of a jest, less like the curate’s egg.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

cure = to air. “The scant bedding was ‘cured’ in the white sunlight.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.

1890s edition
“Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” = a narrative poem written in 1867 by 16-year-old Rose Hartwick Thorpe, about a young woman who saves a lover from execution in 17th-century England. “The trapeze suggestion, however, led the teacher to contemplate the acting out of Curfew Shall Not Ring To-night.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

curl up = to kill. “The old hold-up is on the mule an’ goin’ hell-bent when I curls him up.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Curse of Kishogue = the bad luck believed to follow the refusal of a parting drink. “They don’t know what they are about—they don’t know that they may draw down Kishogue’s curse!” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

curtain lecture = a scolding or rebuke given in private, especially by a wife to her husband. “She seemed to me to be more forward than ever that morning, and I felt a suspicion that I was going to get a curtain lecture.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest.

curve = a personal peculiarity. “It seems to me, Bill, ’at you ought to begin gittin’ on to my curves purty soon.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

curve = to travel purposefully or with some urgency. “News of Apache Kid’s presence there reaching Lone Tree, the marshal would have come curving into town with a posse at his heels.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

curvet = a light leap by a horse, in which both hind legs leave the ground just before the forelegs are set down. “The wherefore of all this dashing horsemanship, this curveting, prancing galloping revival of knightly tourney effects was apparent.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

cushion carroms = in billiards, bouncing the cue ball off one or more sides of the table cushions before striking another ball. “Now, Sonny, you keep your temper, and watch me play cushion carroms with our friend there." Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

cut and come again = to help oneself as often as one likes. “It was like Clint an’ me cuttin’ and comin’ again off the loaf an’ the knuckle-bone of ven’son.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

cut ice = be important, carry weight. “But you cut a lot of ice in this country, or our dad does, and it’s the same thing.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.

cut the pigeon wing = a brisk, fancy dance step executed by jumping and striking the legs together. “When the figure ‘balance to your partners’ was reached many a fellow would ‘cut the pigeon-wing,’ and his partner, not to be outdone, would indulge in some fantastic steps.” The Chicago Tribune, 18 October 1882.

cut throat = a card game in which each player plays against all the other players. “Sometimes we’d sit up till purt’ nigh half-past nine, playin’ cut-throat an’ swappin’ tales.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

cut trail = to come across or discover a trail. “‘They cut my back trail,’ said Overland, snuggling down behind the brush.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

cut up didoes = play pranks. “But you ain’t a-helpin’ yourself a-cuttin’ of didoes like this.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold.

cutter = a light horse-drawn sleigh. “As the cutter sped swiftly over the first mile, she chatted freely, without thought of danger.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

cutty pipe = a short-stemmed tobacco pipe. “In the doorway an old man, with a short cutty-pipe between his lips, leaned upon a crutch and surveyed the sky with weatherwise eyes.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

cymlin = a squash plant having flattened round fruit with a scalloped edge, usually greenish white (also cymling). “The boy is young, and he’s as green as a cymlin, of course.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

Next: D (d.f. - ding)


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: Loren D. Estleman, The Master Executioner


  1. Cracksman has a different meaning these days, I guess.

  2. Never heard that version of “Streets of Laredo" before. Very familiar with the song though.