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.”
milk pan = a small type of saucepan, with a lip, used for heating milk. “Callie Grainger sang it, and the moon was managed by means of the traditional milk-pan and candle.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.
mill = a fight, prizefight. “Dear, dear! what a mill it was, and neither of ’em wore the American flag or talked into phonographs!” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.
mill tail = the current of water running in a channel and turning a mill wheel. “While I go after ’em, you ride like the mill tails o’ hell an’ bring out Bull and Jake.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.
miner’s inch = a unit of measure of water flow, equaling 1.5 cu. ft. (0.04 cu. meter ) per minute. “In vain he showed them the big canal and beautiful system of ditches, and pointed with much enthusiasm to the armour-belted, double-riveted clause in the sale contracts guaranteeing to the lucky buyer the delivery of so many miner’s inches or cubic feet of water every day in the year.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.
minié ball = a rifle bullet with a conical head used in muzzle-loading firearms. “Poor Billy! A ‘minie’ ball fell into his breast one day, fell wailing like a cat, and tore a great ragged hole in his heart.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.
mint and anise and cumin = reference to Jesus’ warning to the scribes and Pharisees: “Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” “Mrs. Landvetter sighed with relief. She had paid her mint and anise and cumin to Mrs. Grundy.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.
“Mistletoe Bough, The” = a ghost story, first appearing as a song in 1830, popular in the 19th century at Christmastime. “The most ambitious undertaking in the whole exhibition was the acting out with tableaux of The Mistletoe Bough.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.
mizzle = to make a sudden departure. “You’d better mizzle—go home, you know.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.
mockish = counterfeit, sham. “Right at the time it didn’t sound so empty an’ mockish.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
mog = to walk or move along gently, slowly, and steadily. “I’m going to take a lantern and mog along up the track to see where they come together.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.
mogul = a steam locomotive with three pairs of driving wheels and one pair of smaller wheels in front. “She climbed up and sat beside him while the mogul rolled and racked and plunged forward through the night.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.
Money Musk = a song and partnered folk dance in which couples dance in two facing lines. “Buckskin and feathers may swirl in the tan-bark rings to the tune of Money Musk.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.
monopole = the French term for a vineyard that is wholly owned by one person or company. “‘I really think it’s champagne,’ said Old Grannis in a whisper. So it was. A full case of Monopole.” Frank Norris, McTeague.
moon along = to wander around lost in thought. “Got to thinking in the desert, and sort of willing things to come to pass, and mooning along, you and the sky and the vultures?” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.
moon vine = or moon flower (pomoea alba), a species of night-blooming morning-glory, native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. “He waved a gauntleted salute to Aunt Eleanor, who stood on the porch, drawing a leaf of the graceful moon-vine through her slender fingers.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.
moonshine = nonsense, a trifle, nothing at all. “‘All moonshine, Noland, old boy,’ he exclaimed when he followed Elizabeth back to the sickroom a few minutes later. ‘This girl’s as sound as a dollar.’” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.
moquette = a carpet with a deep, tufted pile. “Its moquette carpet, easy chairs, Turkish divan, beautiful pictures, and shelves well filled with books—all combined to make this little editorial ‘den’ one of surprising elegance.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.
mort = a large quantity or number. “Yes, there’s a mort o’ trouble with them mines!” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.
mosquito bar = a net or curtain for excluding mosquitoes, used for beds and windows. “Curly came tumbling through the mosquito bar in the window.” Roger Pocock, Curly.
mosquito hawk = the crane fly, “daddy longlegs.” “We sat in silence (while the ponies browsed the tufts of grass) watching the clouds of mosquitos hanging in their phalanxes along the trickle of the stream and the bright, gauzy, blue wings of two mosquito-hawks flashing through the midst.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.
mossback = a longhorn whose horns have wrinkled with age; an old wrinkled cowman. “Here’s two mighty slick ol’ long-horn mossbacks you wants to be po’ful shy of.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.
Mother Carey’s chickens = two people who share living quarters and the payment for them. “Those Rookeries—Mother Carey’s chickens. Do you know what that Rookery gang is? A lot of gambling toughs, remittance doughheads.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.
mouchoir = handkerchief. “She had been embroidering a mouchoir case for Clarence that unfortunate afternoon of Darrell’s performance, when she heard loud talking in the piazza.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.
mountain fever = an acute viral infection spread by the bite of the Dermacentor andersoni wood tick; Colorado tick fever. “They had chosen a time when McCloud, the assistant superintendent of the mine, was down with mountain fever.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.
mourners bench = a bench for mourners or repentant sinners placed at the front in a revival meeting. “I edged over your way, plumb edified by your remarks, and when the rush for the mourners’ bench come I unlimbered an’ headed the stampede pronto.” Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth.
mow away = to hide something. “Well, son, this yere Crawfish Jim is as a den of serpents. I reckons now he has a plumb dozen mowed away in his raiment.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
mozo = a male servant, attendant (from Spanish). “A mozo rode in one day, with a package from Ramon.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.
Mr. Toots = a character in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. “Like Mr. Toots, poor Lane, in his anxiety to put no one to any trouble, came within an ace of stammering, ‘It’s of no consequence’.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.
Mrs. Grundy = the mythical standard bearer of conventional social proprieties; originated as a character in Thomas Morton’s play, Speed the Plough (1798). “Mrs. Grundy ascertained who were to be the best-dressed ladies, what their pedigree was, and how their money had been made.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.
mucker = a workman in a mine who removes gravel, hardpan, etc., and loads and pushes cars to the mouth of the shaft or tunnel. “In due time The Kid forced himself up the line of promotion from mucker to drill carrier.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.
mudcat = any of several large North American catfish living in muddy rivers. “This cool retreat was the summer home of the lazy turtle, of sunfish and of ‘mud-cat.’” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.
Mudhead = a native of Tennessee. “Didn’t ask him who he was, and it warn’t written on his face. Was a citizen, but whether a Hoshier, or Buckeye, or a Mudhead, is more than I can tell.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.
mug = to ruin, interfere with, make a mess of. “The spaniel persisted in messing about and mugging a trail, and his owner pig-headedly abetted him.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.
muggins = a simple person, fool. “That little Muggins could twist me right ’round her finger—and me not know it!” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.
mukluks = high, soft boots worn in the American Arctic and traditionally made from sealskin. “He moved lightly, his footing made doubly secure by reason of his soft-soled mukluks” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.
mull = a soft thin muslin used in dresses and for trimmings. “She went back to the other clothes, the weblike mulls, the soft nainsooks, and the embroidered, silk-threaded flannels.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.
mullein strengthener = herbal remedy for sore throat, cough, and lung diseases. “The women loved him for his gentleness, and his (apparent) need of red flannel, horehound syrup, and mullein strengthener.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.
murphy = a potato. “Oh, you ain’t up to Western slang, a Murphy then. Really Murphy, slang for potato. I’m of Irish distraction, as Mrs. Finnerty says.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.
murrain = a plague, pestilence; the potato blight during the Irish famine in the mid-1800s. “‘A murrain on the filthy swine!’ sez Hammy, after he began to quiet down a little.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
musher = a person who drives a sled dog team. “As a swarm of ‘mushers,’ they found life to be that sardonic changeling of reality that corrupts the clean struggle for all great visions.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.
mushroom town = a boomtown that springs up overnight. “He quit railroading, collected his savings, and started a hotel in one of the mushroom ‘towns’ with which the very rumour of a boom will spot a country.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.
muss = a fight, dispute, commotion. “‘We heard you was,’ sez he; ‘killed in a muss over at Danders.’” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
Mustang liniment = or Mexican Mustang Liniment, a patent medicine and all-purpose palliative, made in St. Louis (not Mexico) by Dr. A. G. Bragg and later by the Lyon Manufacturing Company; ingredients varied, one recipe calling for equal parts petroleum, olive oil and carbonate of ammonia. “Cut my first tooth on a book of pomes ma got for a premium with Mustang Liniment.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.
Previous: M (macer – mikonaree)
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: Robert Mitchum, The Wonderful Country (1959)