Saturday, March 15, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: M
(macer – mikonaree )

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.”

macer = swindler, thief, villain. “Gamblers, miners, suckers, marks, / Spieler, macers, bunco sharks.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Mackinaw boat = a flat-bottomed boat used by fur traders on the Great Lakes and the Missouri River. “Unfortunately, the last steamboat had left Fort Union for the South, making it necessary that the trip be made in a mackinaw boat.” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

madroño = evergreen shrub or tree of the Pacific coast of North America with glossy leathery leaves and orange-red edible berries. “The ranchero was mounted on a lithe bay mare, which swiftly climbed the lazy rises of intervening hills dotted thick with oak, buckeye and madroño.” Charles Duff Stuart, Casa Grande.

Maggie Tulliver, 1910
Maggie Tulliver = the impoverished but idealistic young heroine of George Eliot’s novel, The Mill on the Floss. “A Maggie Tulliver in her own family, Luther was the one compensating feature of her life.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

mahala = a slang word for an Indian woman in 1800's California, from a mispronunciation of the Spanish word  “mujer.” “Here are no wives, unless you have a fancy yourself for turning mahala, as seems likely.” Mary Austin, Isidro. [Thanks to

“Maiden’s Prayer, The” = a composition for piano by Tekla Badarzewska, first published in 1856. “It was announced to the audience very loudly that this piece was called The Maiden’s Prayer.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

main stem = the main course of a river or stream; the trunk of a tree. “They have lots of land, but are running shy on money, an’ the main stem of the family is getting purty well thinned out.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

make a mash = to seduce someone. “‘He’s makin’ a mash,’ said Ling laconically, as he jerked his thumb toward the open door of the living-room.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

make a poor mouth = to complain, to slander. “‘What I like about him’ said Jack, in his customary drawl, ‘is that he don’t “make a poor mouth.”” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

make a spoon or spoil a horn = to make a determined effort to achieve something, whatever the cost; dates from the practice of making spoons out of the horns of cattle or sheep. “We shall either make a spoon or spoil a horn. How would you be fixed in the event of a telegraphers’ strike?” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

make down = to fold down a bed’s covers to make it ready for use. “While the rest were washing for supper, disposing of war sacks, or ‘making down’ blankets, Mat squatted in the chimney corner to read his letters.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

make hair bridles in Yuma = to do time in the territorial prison in Yuma, Arizona. “Nice boy, that, but hot-headed as a goat. He’ll be making hair bridles down in Yuma some day, I reckon.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.

make medicine = to hold a conference, plan some action. “I’m goin’ down the road to make medicine with the Schoolmarm.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

make rates = to assign a charge for a certain quantity of a commodity. “I went over an’ told him that I would like to board with him if he would make me rates.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

make the riffle = to succeed at something. “‘Boys,’ says I, under my breath, ‘they've made the riffle’.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

make-up = costuming for a theatrical performance. “What Hammy was tryin’ to say was that we should open the trunks, dress ourselves in the clothes, an’ give a show. He said he knew parts to fit any make-ups we’d find.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

malemute = a breed of sled dog developed in Alaska. “A scrubby little habitant with a black moustache, addressed as Sinjon, whose lithe and snow-white malemute got a favourite’s encouragement.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

mamook tumtum = to make up one’s mind (Chinook jargon). “Mostly, Casey, you mamook tumtum a heap – you look ahead and savvy plenty.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

manada = herd (from Spanish). “Pasquale reported on his return after dark that the manada were contentedly feeding on their accustomed range within three miles of camp.” Andy Adams, A Texas Matchmaker.

manta = a rough-textured cotton fabric made and used in Spanish America. “Much of the furniture, of ranch manufacture, was chintz covered, the manta of the ceiling was unstained.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

mantle = the incandescent gauze surrounding the flame in a gas lamp. “Minker’s windows defied the darkness of Pike Street with a greenish glare of mantle gas and porcelain tiles.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

map = a person’s face. “He rides about five rods on the cayuse and then five more on his map.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

mare’s nest = an extremely confused, entangled, or disordered situation. “Evidently the solicitor is beating the bush to start some game, and will be satisfied with a ‘mare’s nest,’ if he can only entangle the Attorney General in it.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

"Mariana," 1901
“Mariana” = a poem about despondent isolation by Tennyson published in 1830. “All day long this heart-sickening song of Mariana has been reeling and swimming in my brain.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

marker = something worthy to be compared. “The brotherly views them two gents entertains ain’t a marker to Jim Willis an’ me.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Marlin rifle = a shoulder arm developed by John Marlin of New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1890s. “Seaforth was at the head of the stairway with a pack upon his back, and the barrel of a Marlin rifle sloped across his shoulders.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

marrowfat pea = a mature pea allowed to dry out in the field before harvesting. “A heart no bigger than a marrowfat pea—selfishness, all self.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

Massic wine = a wine much praised in classical times from Campania, Italy. “The sunshine affects you like Roman goblets of Massic wine.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

Marie Corelli, 1909
mast = the fruit of beech, oak, chestnut, and other forest trees, used as food for pigs and wild animals. “We lived on mast and corn, the winter, in tents and a few dugouts and rickety huts.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Master Christian, The = a novel by popular English writer, Marie Corelli (1855-1924), published in 1900. “The humour of a Sunday paper, Ouida, “The Duchess,” “The Master Christian,” Science Jottings, the Nineteenth Century would carry Bill, all equally, into some weird fairyland.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

Mastiff = a plug cut tobacco sold by the J. B. Pace Tobacco Company of Richmond, Virginia. “Trina had made him come down to ‘Mastiff,’ a five-cent tobacco with which he was once contented, but now abhorred.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

mattock = a long-handled tool used for digging and chopping, similar to the pickaxe. “He tried the lock with his stone, tried the wood with his knife, fumbling and hurried; bethought himself at last to stumble about the dark and filthy corners of the room for a mattock.” Mary Austin, Isidro.

mavourneen = my darling (from Irish). “‘Prettier than ever, mavourneen,’ his deep voice flattered, ‘Come, that wasn’t half a kiss.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

Maxim gun
Maxim gun = the first self-powered machine gun, invented by the British inventor Sir Hiram Maxim in 1884. “Some of these savages are sure to be wanting a fight, so Mr. Britisher obliges, and comes along hot with rifles and Maxim guns.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

McAllister, Ward = the self-appointed arbiter (1827-1895) of New York society, whose list of “Four Hundred” named the city’s most socially elite. “They have an etiquette as binding as McAllister’s Four Hundred, but what it is I don’t know.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

McKinley bill = a protective tariff measure passed in Congress in 1890. “If I’m any good at reading brands, she is as self-protective as the McKinley bill.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

meat = prey, potential victim. “If he’s yer meat, jest say so, and’ I’m mum.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

medicine shark = patent medicine seller; doctor. “It hangs on and bites ’fore anybody kin bresh it off, and, ’fore Gawd, he ups and dies while the medicine shark is comin’ from the next town.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

megrims = depression, unhappiness. “Overtaken by the megrims, the philosopher may seek relief in soliloquy,” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

Mellin’s food = a baby formula made from malt extract, developed in the 1870s. “She gets her last doll out every once in awhile, honest; and still has a secret hankering for Mellin’s food.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

melodeum = a small keyboard organ. “I was scared it was vi’lets and ‘Gather at the River,’ without the melodeum, for him.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

Mephitis Mephitica = a skunk. “You would do well to retreat and let the little genus Mephitis Mephitica infect the air for his own benefit.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

mercery = goods made of silk, linen, and fustian textiles. “She found the money for conducting it, and also carried on a trade in groceries and mercery goods.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

mess-box = a storage box for provisions on a chuck wagon. “She found that the tin breakfast service had been washed and returned to the mess-box, the beds had been neatly folded and piled in one of the wagons.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

mestizo/a = a person of mixed race, especially the offspring of a Spaniard and an American Indian. “It is the Americano, Señor Cranch, and his adopted daughter, the mestiza Juanita, seeking your reverence, methinks.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

Methodist axe = an axe with two cutting edges. “So the crew slashed out a way with double-bitted or two-faced axes—‘Methodist axes,’ as they were called in an unwarranted reflection upon that excellent denomination.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

Mexican Mustang liniment = a preparation for relief of aches and pains, for use by “man and beast,” produced by the Lyon Manufacturing Company, New York. “I’ll rub it good with Mustang liniment; that’s th’ best thing I know of.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

Mexican stand-off = a situation in which there is no clear winner; an impasse (from poker). “Boys, as fur as the coin goes, we’re out an’ injured; we jest made a ‘Mexican stand-off’—lost our money, but saved our lives.” Rex Beach, Pardners.

miaul = meow. “He snorts and clucks and growls and snarls. Romeo says he miauls like a disappointed hyena.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

mighty sight = a great deal. “You have give me a mighty sight of heartaches in my time.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

mignonette = an herb with spikes of small, fragrant greenish flowers. “She gathered more from the long box on the edge of the veranda, and with a handful of mignonette, arranged them in a crystal bowl for the center of the board.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

mikonaree = a missionary to the Indians. “Till then he had looked and borne himself like any other traveler, unrecognized as a parson or ‘mikonaree.’” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.


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: Randolph Scott, Abilene Town (1946)


  1. I always liked the phrase to "poor-mouth." Language is endlessly fascinating.

  2. Amusing and educational, Ron, thanks

  3. "Making a mash" has to come from "masher," a derogatory term for a man who makes a pest of himself trying to flirt with women. Kipling has a line in his poem, "My Rival" where the poor seventeen year old heroine laments that:

    "She rides with half a dozen men -- she calls them 'boys' and 'mashers.'"