Saturday, February 22, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: K
(Kafir corn – kumtuks)

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.”

Kafir corn = a Southern African variety of sorghum, cultivated in dry regions for its grain and as fodder, “Was it you, Doc, you benighted stray from the short-grass Kansas plains, where they can't raise Kafir corn?” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

kale = money. “Pass over the kale. Just slip out a five for your trouble.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

kalsomine = whitewash, applied to ceiling or walls. “It had five rooms, and all they needed was a coat of paint and kalsomine.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

katy = hat (also “kady,” “kadi”). “I take off my katy, and I apologise to you.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

Katy bar the door = a warning to take precautions. “Ef yu crowds her too hard ’n’ gits her on th’ fight, it’s ‘Katy bar th’ door’ wi’ yu, ’n’ adios t’ her ’n’ her calf.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman

katzenjammer = a hangover. “Woke up next day with a katzenjammer.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

keeno = excellent, wonderful, first-rate. “‘Keeno!’ shouts back Ches, some exasperated.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

keep a weather eye open = to stay alert. “Surrounded as he was by other horses, he kept his weather eye open for a race.” Andy Adams, The Log of a Cowboy.

keep case/cases = to watch closely. “The rest of the guests got to noticin’ too, an’ when they’d finish they’d just stick around an’ keep cases.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

keep up the stroke = to labor without resting. “‘How do you manage to keep up the stroke?’ ‘Law bless you!’ she laughed easily, “I ben trained into it.’” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

Kelpie, T. Dow, 1895
kelpie = a supernatural creature of Scottish and Irish folklore, appearing as a horse luring riders into the water where they are drowned and eaten. “O’ course a man likes to try his chance on the chips once in a way, and to the kelpies o’ the drinkin’ places one must leave a few dollars.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Kentucky breakfast = a three-pound steak, a bottle of whisky, and a setter dog. “What’s the dog for? Why, to eat the steak, of course.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

Keeley Institute = a commercial medical operation that offered treatment to alcoholics, wildly popular in the late 1890s. “She, the first wife, sent for him, put him into a Keeley Institute, paid the expenses of his divorce proceedings against wife number two, remarried, him, and was caring for him.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

key log = the log which, if removed, would free up a logjam. “She reproduced every detail for her pale audience of one—Carter astride of the key-log; his men, bating their breath with the ‘huh’ of his stroke; Bender’s distress; the cynical grin of Michigan Red.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

kick = a pocket. “Your overcoat ‘hocked,’ not a cent in your ‘kick,’ / And ‘beautiful snow’ till you can’t see a brick.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

kick-back = a tree jumping back over the stump toward the faller. “Reed and Kantochy, two sawyers, were caught by a ‘kick-back’.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

kick up = a dance, a party. “Lor’ won’t we have a kick-up here all by ourselves!” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

kicking strap = a device worn by a horse to prevent it from lifting its hind-quarters to either kick or buck. “His mate, a rat-tailed mare, equally big, differed only in the insignia of wickedness, wearing a kicking-strap in harness, a log chain in the stable.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

kiddie = a young person. “What wud A be doin’ goin’ among a lot o’ kiddie boys t’ study Hebrew when A know the language o’ the man on the street?” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

kidney = temperament; type. “It was well enough known, he said that representatives of the law and road-agents, and men of such kidney, often (as it is called) ‘josh’ one another.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

king bolt = a main or large bolt in a mechanical structure; thus, a leader, boss, kingpin. “He has already got the king-bolt but he wants to round up the whole outfit.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

Cophetua, maid, 1883
King Cophetua = an ugly legendary king who married a pretty beggar maid and made her his queen. “Elinor would go to her wedding with Ormsby as the beggar maid went to King Cophetua.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Kiralfy = a ballet company in San Francisco. “The former occupant had papered the walls with newspapers and had pasted up figures cut out from the posters of some Kiralfy ballet, very gaudy.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

kit and posse = the lot, the whole thing. “I’ve been too good to the hull kit ’n’ possy o’ ye.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

kittle cattle = capricious, difficult, erratic, rash. “Relatives are sometimes kittle-cattle, and as I did not know how he would take my letter I wearied for a reply.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

ki-yi = a whoop or shout, like the howl or yelp of a dog. “Don’t that sound mightily like the ki-yi of the Sewer Gang?” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

klootch / klootchman = an Indian woman (from Chinook jargon). “‘I’’m not a klootch,’ she flashed. ‘I’m a white woman, and when I wear a becoming dress I like somebody to tell me so’.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

knickerbockers = knee pants. “All were in blue overalls and shirt sleeves but one; and he was in knickerbockers.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

knock = to make a good impression. “Just one word more, and that’s what knocks, / There’s always stuff in the parson’s box.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

knock a twister = to send a person into contortions. “He had a sister / That could play the Suannee River till would knock us all a twister.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

knocker = a stunningly attractive person. “Sergeant Foyle, oh, he’s a knocker from the West.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

knucklebones = an ancient game, similar to jacks. “Isn’t that just the way ninety-nine men out of a hundred go on dickering with evil week-days and salving it all on Sunday—playing knucklebones with brain, heart, conscience, and what are called primitive instincts?” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

knuckleduster / knucks = a metal guard worn over the knuckles in fighting to increase the effect of blows. “There’d been a strike in the mine, an’ my friend had took it in hand with knuckledusters on.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

Krag = a repeating bolt action rifle designed by Norwegians Ole Herman Johannes Krag and Erik Jørgensen in the late 19th century. “The wagons were blue with soldiers, the early golden rays slanting from their Krags.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers. 

kumtuks = to know (from Chinook jargon). “He waved his hand at the wreck. ‘You kumtuks that?” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

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

Previous: J (jerkwater – junto)
Next: L (La France rose – light a shuck)


Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Dane Coolidge, The Texican (1911)


  1. Ron, I have heard of "Katzenjammer" in a different context, namely Katzenjammer Kids which was one of the earliest American comic strips and a precursor to comic books. It takes getting used to reading these comic strips.

    1. Hi, Prashant. I knew the K kids, too, from the Sunday comics.

  2. Kentucky Breakfast - I can use that! Thanks, Ron. Keep up the good work.

  3. Kalsomine, also known as calicimine. Was still being used in the '30's on the inside of our schoolhouse.

  4. I wonder what "keep up the stroke" owes to rowing...and I'm going to have to go back to my O Henry, because I remember a character in one of his stories referring (not in a nice way) to a woman as a "knocker."