Saturday, March 29, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: N
(nainsook - nut crackers)

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.”

nainsook = a fine, soft cotton fabric, originally from the Indian subcontinent. “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.

navvy = a railway worker; any unskilled laborer. “Mrs. Flannigan, over at the section house, has a lot of navvies boarding with her, besides having the place about knee-deep with kids.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

nawitka = yes, indeed, for sure (Chinook). “Nawitka, I come straight ’way home.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

near side = the left (i.e. mounting and dismounting) side of a horse. “Actually I didn’t know the off from the nigh side of a hawss!” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.

neck and crop = completely and violently. “Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming, And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop.” Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.

neck yoke = a bar by which the end of the tongue of a wagon or carriage is suspended from the collars of the harnesses. “You’ll eat apples and sugar out of her hand, and if you so much as lay back your ears at her I’ll frale your sinful heart out with a neck yoke.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

needle-tell = a system for marking a deck of cards with invisible needles, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers, which prick “the dealer’s thumb, signaling the presence of certain cards.”

New Thought = a spiritual movement beginning in the 19th century that held that God is everywhere, true human selfhood is divine, sickness originates in the mind, and healing results from right thinking. “The quaint couple, who were born two generations in advance of the birth cry of New Thought, laughed innocently and made no reply.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

New York Ledger = a weekly periodical for young readers, published in New York, 18551898. “I borrowed a huge bundle of The New York Saturday Night and the New York Ledger and from them I derived an almost equal enjoyment.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

Nick Carter = character in a dime novel entitled “The Old Detective’s Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square” (1886), written by John R. Coryell. “I never heard what Struthers said, but it don’t take no Nick Carter to guess.” Rex Beach, Pardners.

nickle library = inexpensive reading material. “We went to the company store an’ got three bushels o’ nickel libraries, enough grub to do six men six months, enough tobacco to do twelve men a year, an’ a little yeller pup ’at we give six bits for.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

nigger heel = racially derogatory reference to chewing tobacco. “My brawny friend cut off a huge chew of ‘nigger heel,’ stowed it away in his capacious cheek, and after a few preliminary expectorations that resembled geysers, continued.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

niggerhead cactus = racially derogatory term for a cactus native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, often growing in clusters, with woolly fruit; now called “cotton top cactus.” “‘Why didn’t you tap the nigger-head there by the barranca?’ his companion asked. ‘What—the big cactus like a green punkin?’” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

nine days’ wonder = a novelty that loses its appeal after a few days. “Foss River settled down after its nine days’ wonder. It was astonishing how quickly the affair was forgotten.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

Nimrod = a hunter. “Aunt Tilda was wont on those gallant occasions to thank the Professor, say he was a perfect Nimrod, and close the incident by requesting him, instead of laying his trophy at her feet, to take it to the kitchen and deliver it into the hands of the Mexican cook.” Alfred Henry Lewis, The Throwback.

nip = of ice, to squeeze or crush the sides of a vessel. “La Bijou skirted a pivoting floe, darted into a nipping channel, and shot out into the open with the walls grinding together behind.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

nippers = teeth. “It shore had a fine set of nippers, and could jerk off the stearin’ gear of a cow quicker ’n greazed lightnin’.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

nixey / nixie = no, certainly not. “They’re all right to marry, all things being equal, but to sacrifice your life for, nixie.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

No. 9 = Irish whiskey. “‘A little number nine, Billy. Here’s a ho!’ He set his glass down, and faced Cross.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

no chicken = someone who is no longer young. “I am free to say that I should be uneasy myself, were I to be similarly accosted, and they say I am—well, that I’m ‘no chicken’, you know.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

noggin = a small drinking vessel, a mug. “They had fought and marched together, spilled many a noggin in each other’s honor, and who drew the other’s monthly pay depended on the paste-boards.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

nooning = making a noon stop for camp, to unharness and rest draft animals, cook a meal, and move on. “Their nooning was at a running stream called Smith’s Creek.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

nopal = prickly pear cactus. “They frequented trails he was known to travel, and lay sometimes for hours and days awaiting him, making themselves as comfortable as possible in the meantime behind some convenient boulder or tall nopal.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

nose paint = whiskey. “The Yallerhouse gent tracks along into the Red Light, an’ tells the barkeep to set out the nose-paint.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

not a cheep = not the slightest sound, not a word. “Not a cheep about the little gal; wouldn’t ’a’ laughed fer a nickel; and never’d go anywheres nigh the lunch-counter.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

not for Joe = by no means, not by any account. “We ain’t goin’ to sleep in here to-night, anyways, not for Jo, wi’ them mountain rats comin’ in on us.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

not on your tintype = absolutely not; a general term of derision, dismissal, denial. “Want to stay here and keep your feet warm while I go and do it? Not on your tintype, you yapping hound!” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

Machine-made Nottingham lace
Nottingham lace = lace from Nottingham, England, the center of the world’s lace industry during the years of the British Empire. “But you know the type—Nottingham lace curtains in the parlour, and ‘God Bless Our Home’ over the mantel!” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

nubia = a woman’s soft fleecy scarf for the head and neck. “Her mother stood with her back turned toward the raw April wind as they talked, her old nubia tied loosely about her head and neck and her hands red with the cold.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

nun’s veiling = a thin, plain-woven, worsted fabric, originally for nuns’ veils. “Since old maid Davis made over that blue nun’s veilin’ of hers it looks ’most as good as new.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

nut crackers = teeth. “He shuts his face hard ’nough t’ bust his nut crackers.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.


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: TBD


  1. I guess that Nick Carter is a prequel to the later Nick Carter novels. Interesting.

  2. Thanks for providing the definitions of these no-longer or barely used words.