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.”
jerkwater = a train not running on the main line; so called from the jerking (drawing) of water to fill buckets for supplying a steam locomotive. “‘We are in the thick of things over on the jerkwater just now,’ he explained, ‘and I don’t like to stay away any longer than I have to.’” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.
Jerusalem crickets = a mild expletive. “‘Jerusalem crickets!’ was his comment as he measured the aim.” Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K&A Train Robbery.
jib = to refuse to move forward; said of an animal in harness. “That boy’s done a mighty heap of work around here since I took him on; he’d come nigh shamin’ a jibbin’ mule.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.
jick = one of the Jacks in a game of cards. “‘Couldn't find ’em nohow,’ says he; ‘hunted high and low, jick, Jack, and the game.’” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.
jig juice = alcohol, spirits, whisky. “He pikes over to call on the mayor, and sets up the jig-juice to him, pours flattering words in his ears.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!
jigger = a gadget, small mechanical contrivance. “Is this ’ere jigger in the pipe a damper?” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.
jim crow = small-time, low-class. “You can gamble thar wouldn’t be no jim-crow marshal go pirootin’ ’round, losin’ no eye of mine an’ getting’ away with it.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
jimber jaw = a projecting lower jaw. “Soon the buck came in with his gun, a tall young Siwash in a worn fur cap, with thin, handsome upper features, but a brutal jimber-jaw.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.
jimjams = delirium tremens. “Rattlesnake Valley, over yonder, ain't never been good for much exceptin' the finest breed of serpents an' horn-toads a man ever see outside a circus or the jimjams.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.
jimmies = a state of nervous agitation, the jitters; delirium tremens. “I was scared he was goin’ to have the jimmies.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.
jimmy = a short housebreaker’s crowbar. “Avondale was a mercenary adventurer, and used his newly acquired title as a social ‘jimmy’ to break into the sanctity of our home.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.
jin up = to stir up, enliven; also “gin up.” “They needed a ‘jinning’ up.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
jingle = spirit, energy. “You have not forgotten all your Western jingle, even though you have been gone a year and a half.” Therese Broderick, The Brand.
jingle bob = historically, the distinctive cutting of a cow’s ear by early New Mexico rancher, John Chisum; also, a piece of metal dangling against a spur rowel which makes a ringing sound as a cowhand walks, and keeps livestock from being surprised by his movement, especially at night. “His brand was a long rail on the side, while for an earmark he gave the jingle bob, ‘Ear cut so it hangs down like a bell’.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.
Jink = a mild oath. “Where the Jink did you meet up with him?” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
jinny = female donkey. “D’ye remember, Bill, that yarn that Bob read us outen that Bible last night – about Christ ridin’ into Jerusalem an’ Him sendin’ two men over to the nearest camp for a jinny with a colt?” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.
job = to cheat, trick. “Hairoil went to him and said I’d been jobbed, and was innocenter’n Mary’s little lamb.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.
jobbernowl = a blockhead, stupid person. “Creed’s a dhrivlin’ jobbernowl that orders his comin’s be th’ hang av th’ moon, an’ his goin’s be th’ dhreams av his head.” James Hendryx, The Promise.
jobbery = the practice of using a public office or position of trust for one's own gain or advantage. “The result is, that robbery and jobbery are alike legalized; not by the consent of the governed, but by bribed legislatures.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.
Jockey Club = a popular and much imitated fragrance in the late 19th century. “She dusted more starch over the traces of her tears, poured half a vial of Jockey Club over the front of her dress, tucked a pale blue silk handkerchief into her lavender belt and with one last approving look at the reflection, entered the sitting-room.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!
jodarter = something or someone unsurpassed. “It’s a jodarter of a feed, with cake, pie, airtights, an’ the full game.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.
joe-dandy = wonderful, excellent, superlative. “Nothing came amiss to him. In his own line Peter was a Jo-dandy.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
|Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882|
John Rogers = so-called “first Protestant martyr,” whose wife and ten children witnessed his burning at the stake, as depicted in the New England Primer (where it is spelled “John Rodgers”). “She was a widow with a John Rodgersy sort of family, nine children like I used to read about in the primer.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.
“Johnny, Get Your Gun” = popular 1886 song by Monroe H. Rosenfeld (1861-1918), who coined the term “Tin Pan Alley.” “Then with old ‘Johnny Get Your Gun’ he sot the rafters ringin.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.
John’s drink = a drink before parting company. “‘The punch, next time!’ he screamed, quite beside himself; ‘refuse the John’s-drink, would you?’” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.
jointweed = a slender, nearly leafless, American herb, with joined spikes of small flowers. “A few gaunt rosebushes with shriveled hips sprang from a velvety carpet of green and clammy joint-weed.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.
joram = large drinking bowl, large amount. “He poured out a joram of hot whisky for each of the men.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
Joshua tree = a species of the yucca, resembling a tree, named by Mormon settlers crossing the deserts of the Southwest. “Dried, withered Joshua trees twisted into fantastic shapes as if their fearful surrounding had caused them to writhe in horror.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.
joss = an idol, figure of worship. “At that moment we completely filled in the foreground, middle distance, and background of all their joss dreams.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.
jug = to evade, dodge, avoid. “If those shorthorns attempt to offer any opposition, I’ll run a blazer on them, and if necessary I’ll jug the pair.” Andy Adams, The Outlet.
jug = to deceive, either jokingly or through some illegality. “He stole ’em, those coal lands. He jugged ’em thro’ Land Office records with false entries.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.
jug = to imprison, incarcerate. “I took him by the scruff o’ th’ neck and helped him down Smelter City trail an’—an’—an’ I jugged him; that’s all; an’ there he is yet!” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.
jugglery = artful trickery. “It’s jugglery, the whole business; there ain’t anything honest about it.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.
|T. D. Rice as Jim Crow|
“Jump Jim Crow” = a song and dance from 1828, sung in blackface by white comedian Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) “Daddy” Rice. “‘The first two gents cross over,’ Peg Leg called, in tune to ‘Jump-Jim-Crow.’ ‘Honors to the right, honors to the left.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.
jumper = a loose, protective garment worn over other clothes. “Closing his shirt he examined his jumper, pulled his book of rules out, and found a deep furrow ploughed across the cover.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.
june around = to become restless. “Ef that bunch gets t’ junin’ ’round when yu jumps ’em, ’n’ yu caint eat ’em up fast ’nough by y’ur lonesome, Cress ’n’ me’ll jest nachally lie in ’n’ he’p yu chew up th’ hull passle.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.
juniper = a rustic, hayseed. “He ain’t the inexperienced juniper he looks.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.
junto = a clique that seeks power through intrigue. “Gaston the strenuous was still no more than a lusty infant among the cities of the brown plain when the broom broke and the junto was born.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.
Previous: I,J (ignus fatuus – jerk line)
Next: K (Kafir corn - kumtuks)
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: Dane Coolidge