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.”
ignus fatuus = will-o’-the-wisp; a phosphorescent light that appears in marsh lands. “At the time he was following that ignis fatuus, Holy Grail, pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, which was to him his Duty.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.
I’m a Chinaman = derogatory reference to Chinese, expressing surprise and disbelief. “‘I’m a Chinaman,’ says Billy, ‘if it ain’t a kid!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
I’m a Mexican = derogatory reference to Mexicans, expressing surprise and disbelief. “I’m a Mexican if this yere Sal don’t come wanderin’ in, a-cryin’ an’ a-mournin’ powerful.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
|Man with imperial|
imperial = small part of a beard growing below the lower lip. “The snapping black eyes, with the straight brows almost meeting over the nose, suggested Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and Flemister shaved to fit the part, with curling mustaches and a dagger-pointed imperial.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.
in bond = a term applied to the status of merchandise admitted provisionally to a country without payment of duty, to be kept in a bonded warehouse or for shipment to another point where duties will be imposed. “She gave final and minute orders to tailors and dressmakers, instructed them to send the trousseaux in bond directly to Great Falls, Montana.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.
in high feather = in good spirits. “The tireless little animal followed him along the fence rails for perhaps a hundred yards, seeing him off the premises and advising him not to return, then went back in high feather to his task.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.
“In the Baggage Coach Ahead” = a sentimental song popular at the turn of the last century, written in 1896 by African American composer Gussie L. Davis (1863-1899). “For nine months I have heard nothing but ‘The Baggage Coach Ahead’ and ‘She is My Baby’s Mother.’” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.
in the sulks = unhappy. “But he was divided between his impulse to send the trio on a double-quick about their business and the doubt as to what effect it would have on the tribe if they were sent back to it in the sulks.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.
independent as a hog on ice = ungovernable. “A young cub of a Siwash came a-riding along to camp about noon, as large as life and independent as a hog on ice.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.
Indian pipe = monotropa uniflora, a flower-like white plant not requiring sunlight, growing in the understory of dense forests; also ghost plant, corpse plant. “In a niche of the wall an alabaster Piétà, brought home from Florence, slender and white and fragile as the Indian pipes that spring without warning in the black forest mold, ghosts of flowers, caught her eye.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.
indignation meeting = a meeting held for the purpose of expressing and discussing grievances. “An indignation meeting was held, where with much feeling they denounced the actions of Ernest Nicholson in buying land north of the town.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest.
ingrain carpet = a reversible carpet made of wool dyed before weaving and having a similar design on each side, with the colors reversed. “It had been Edith’s intention to take their household effects to Washington—the folding-bed, the ingrain carpet, and the parlor cook.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.
injun = to sneak around, creep up on. “While she’s gone I injuns an’ spies ‘round a whole lot.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
Injun sign = a magic spell, a curse, a jinx. “You may be able to hang the Injun-sign on old Rance McCoy, but to us, you’re just another dirty shirt that needs doin’ up.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.
intervale = a tract of low-lying land, especially along a river. “Below them lay a stretch of long, smooth intervale—fresh with young grass, and skirted by Indian willows with heavy hardwood behind them.” S. Carleton Jones, Out of Drowning Valley.
iodoform = a yellow crystalline compound similar to chloroform, with a sweet odor, used as an antiseptic. “Our strength was as plain to them, as Tillte Dutch was the time he fell in love and used iodoform on his hair instead o’ perfume.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.
|Irish point, 1904|
Irish point = Brussels appliqué; needlepoint lace, made in Ireland. “The aristocratic family with the Irish-point curtains in the windows—that lives on the county.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.
ironwood = a common name for a large number of woods that have a reputation for hardness. “They made a very small fire of cat-claw and ironwood.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.
irrigate = drink, take a drink. “Come over ’n’ let’s irrigate.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.
Irving, Henry = an English stage actor and theatrical manager (1838-1905); the first actor to be awarded a knighthood. “He’s great, Mrs. Carter; puts it all over Henry Irving.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.
Ishmael / Ishmaelite = an outcast; someone at odds with society (reference to Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar, the servant of Abraham’s wife Sarah). “Months in a strange country had taught Robin that he was not the stuff of which an Ishmael is made.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.
J. Murphy = a very large covered wagon developed by Joseph Murphy of St. Louis, used by freighters on the Santa Fe Trail. “They’re coming back light, and we can have a J. Murphy that is bigger than a whole lot of houses in this country.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.
jacal = (Spanish) a small house or shack built by driving vertical stakes into the ground, lacing them together, and covering them with mud. “This quarter of the town was a ragged edge; its denizens the bubbling froth of five nations; its architecture tent, jacal, and 'dobe.” O. Henry, The Heart of the West.
jacemo = a stout headstall made of horsehair, used in bronco breaking and handling. “It needed only a glance to note that his jacemo had been removed.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman
jack easy = easy-going; a reference to Frederick Marryat’s comic novel Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836). “My father was a queer old fellow. He was a determined enough man, but very ‘jack easy’ as the word is.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!
Jack Hazard = character in a series of children’s stories by John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916). “I read about a boy whose name is Jack Hazard and who, J. T. Trowbridge informs the reader, is doing his best, and who seems to find it somewhat difficult.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.
Jack Robinson = a mythical person associated with speed or quickness; the phrase “faster than you can say Jack Robinson,” dates from the 1700s. “The train’ll be here before we can say Jack Robinson.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.
jackleg = incompetent; dishonest. “Frenchy kept a jackleg lawyer, and he was helping to persecute.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Numismatist”
jackpot = the accumulated stakes in a kind of poker that requires one to hold a pair of jacks or better in order to open the betting. “The Governor hoped he might win now, under the jack-pot system.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.
jade = a bad-tempered or disreputable woman. “’Tis said Vincent is over-thick with a jade down in the town.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.
japanned = decorated with a black enamel or lacquer. “The Colonel wrote his name a little stiffly,
being out of practice. . . and
deposited the card on the Japanned salver in the bellboy’s hand.” Lewis B. France,
|Japanned tray, 1850|
jar = dispute, fight. “If the like of me keep out of family jars, the like of Mrs. Scott wouldn’t live with such men.” Charles Duff Stuart, Casa Grande.
jarred up = shaken, surprised. “I reckon I never did get jarred up so. It’s plumb discouraging.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.
jasper = a man, esp. a rustic simpleton. “Just as everything began to look cosey and home-like my pair of Jaspers decided they were afraid of the ocean.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.
jawbone = credit. “Jawbone is the western word for credit. I lack the art of using mine persuasively.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.
jay = a simpleton, novice, newcomer. “He is a jay with a gun, and you may tell him I said so; do you hear?” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.
jaytown = a small town. “You’re different enough from the other men in this jay town.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.
Jehu = a king of Israel known for riding his chariot furiously; a coach or cab driver who drives fast or recklessly. “She sat comfortably ensconced in the back seat of the old, battered red coach, surrounded by cushions for protection from continual jouncing, as the Jehu in charge urged his restive mules down the desolate vally of the Bear Water.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.
jerickety = a mild expletive. “‘Oh, magnificent!—magnificent!—jerickety!’ he said into the sky above him.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.
jerk-line = a single rein that runs to the lead animal in a team of mules or horses. “Freight depot was, too, ljudging from the evidence of the huge-wheeled wagons rigged with chains and stretchers for twenty-horse ‘jerk-line’ teams.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Enchanted Valley.” Learn more here.
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Next: J (jerkwater - junto)
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 Welch, The Heartsong of Charging Elk