Saturday, April 5, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: O
(oak-tan – oyster)

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.”

oak-tan = leather. “He was a heady fellow, and in drinking had an oak-tan stomach.” Andy Adams, The Outlet.

ocotillo = (oh-ko-tee-yo) a tall desert plant of the Southwest and northern Mexico, whose branches resemble spiny dead sticks that sprout many small green leaves after rain and bloom with crimson flowers at the tips. “Up dark, lonely arroyos they went; down long alleys between outstretched arms of the ocatillas [sic] with their pendulous, blood-red blossoms.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

odd-come-short = fragments, odds and ends. “The Lord only knows what odd-come-short of a tale he’s tellin’ Margaret Ransome.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

off = the right side of an animal. “You start out an’ a feller comes along an’ throws an opinion around your off fore foot an’ you go down in a heap an’ that opinion holds you fast for some time.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

off one’s crust = crazy. “Billy’s gone off his crust. He’s ravin’ back there, Brand.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

offscouring = refuse, rubbish. “The dregs, the élite, the humbly respectable, the off-scouring—all thrown together, and shaken up, and mixed well.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

oh-be-joyful = liquor. “He paid two bits at the last tavern for his finger of the oh-be-joyful.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

oh my suz/dear me suz = an all-purpose phrase of emphasis or surprise. “A nightcapped head appeared in the doorway and was suddenly withdrawn, with an ‘Oh, my suz!’” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

oil of bergamot = an ingredient of perfume extracted from bergamot oranges. “In a few minutes Paisley drops around, with oil of bergamot on his hair, and sits on the other side of Mrs. Jessup.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

oil-cake = coarse residue obtained after oil is removed from various oilseeds, rich in protein and minerals and valuable as animal feed. “The men rode range in all weathers, setting out oil-cake and salt.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

ojo-blanco = white person (from Spanish). “The fighting stopped to watch the Ojo-blanco playing tag with the little Apache.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Old Adam = unredeemed humanity. “And he whirled the whip with the skill of all the old Adam stirring within him, while the buckboard went forward with a bounce.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

Old Boy = Satan, the Devil. “The Old Boy himself would have to wave his tail, prick up his sharp ears, and display the best of his Satanic learning to stand the comparison.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

“Old Cow Died, The” = a popular humorous song, copyrighted 1880, probably dating from earlier. “Sandy Larch was squatted on the sand, against the wall of his shack, lacing a new leather into the cincha-ring of his saddle, and singing The Tune The Old Cow Died On.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

“Old Dan Tucker” = an American song popularized in 1843 by the blackface troupe, the Virginia Minstrels. “‘Oh, anything,’ replied the jovial old captain, ‘anything from “Old Dan Tucker” to the “Fisher’s Hornpipe”.’” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

Old Dog Tray” = sentimental Stephen Foster song about an old man and his dog. “He put the mill between his knees, and converted the beans to powder, to the tune of ‘Old dog Tray’ through his nose, which Miss Mattie found very amusing..” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

Old Gentleman = God. “I’d ’a’ sworn ye were one ’o them Prophets in the Wilderness, sent by the Old Gentleman, once in a while, to keep up our courage and show us the way out.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

Old Harry = the Devil. “The next day we worked like the Old Harry.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

“Old Hundred” = the Doxology; “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” “At length six or eight rather sheepishly owned to knowing ‘Old Hundred,’ and it was sung.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

Old Jordan = liquor of no particular quality. “I says this since, from the quantity of Old Jordan you’ve been mown’ away, I more than half infers that you nourishes designs upon the place.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Faro Nell and Her Friends.

Old Master = God. “Pears like ole Mahster’s got a durned fool idee we’uns is web-footed.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

Old McBrayer = Kentucky sour mash whiskey, originated by William Harrison McBrayer in the 1840s. “After each had filled his glass with ‘Old Mcbrayer Booze,’ / We drank to wives and children and those little busted shoes.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

“Old Settler, The” = a folk song originating in the Northwest of the U.S., written by Francis D. Henry, c1874; also called “Acres of Clams.” “‘Oh, let him erlone,’ said Mill Thornton, lifting his tankard and including the company with a bland smile. ‘He’s goin’ ter sing their Ole Settler fur us.’” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

Old Taylor = a bourbon whiskey produced in Frankfort, Kentucky, and named in honor of Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. (1830-1923). “There’s a bottle of ‘Old Taylor’ in the other room; you’d better take a drop.” Pauline Wilson Worth, Death Valley Slim and Other Stories.

oleman = Chinook jargon word for old. “‘Oleman moccasin, him,’ Simon replied oracularly. ‘White man throw him away; Injun keep him, mend him’.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

omadhaun = fool, simpleton, idiot (Irish). “Wid a felly like himself, that dhrunk or sober is aqually an omadhaun, phwat the divvle is the differ?” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

on one’s own hook = at one’s own risk. “I am sort of an outcast now, and just doing what seems best on my own hook.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

on the buscar = looking for (from Spanish). “You don’t catch me taking on girls to look after. I’m on the buscar for a boy.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

on the peck = fighting mad. “I’m more er less a dang’rous character when I’m on the peck.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

on the prod = on the attack, on the offensive. “At this time the Val Verde boy got on the prod slightly, and expressed himself, saying, ‘Why don’t you have two of the other boys count them?’” Andy Adams, The Outlet.

on the queer = acting dishonestly. “Dick may have been on the queer all right, but he was smooth enough to hide it.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

on the scout = on the lam from the law. “Otherwise good men who had slain in the heat of private quarrel and either ‘gone on the scout’ or ‘jumped the country’ rather than submit to arrest.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

on the tapis = of a subject under discussion. “Whenever there was anything on the tapis, he always got the word for himself and friends.” Andy Adams, The Log of a Cowboy.

on the water wagon = abstaining from alcoholic beverages. “Only one thing remained—that was to quit—get on the water wagon.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

on tick = on credit. “We’re jest getting’ back from Frisco, an’ doin’ it on tick, too.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

on velvet = secure, cheerful, enjoying a life without problems. “I’m on velvet; how’s your laigs standin’ the pace, Jim?” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

oolican = eulachon, an ocean fish found along the Pacific coast of North America from northern California to Alaska; also hooligan, ooligan, or candlefish. “Oolicans are, like smelts, very good eating, in my opinion.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

oomiak = an Eskimo open boat made with skin stretched over a wooden frame; also umiak“Here and there Eskimo oomiaks, fat, walrus-hide boats, slid about like huge, many-legged water-bugs.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

open one’s budget = to speak one’s mind. “Lebecque heard him, peering shrewdly from the shaggy pent of his brows, but made no offer to open his own budget until they had eaten and had two thirds of a bottle between them.” Mary Austin, Isidro.

open the ball = to start a fight. “A mob of two hundred toughs lined up before the thirty-odd of the committee and dared them to open the ball.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

opodeldoc = a camphorated liniment of soap mixed with alcohol. “‘I’d assault a bear that was annoying you,’ says Paisley, ‘or I'd endorse your note, or rub the place between your
shoulder-blades with opodeldoc the same as ever’.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

orchestrion = a mechanical music-making device. “I see in St. Louis once what they call a orchestrion.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

ordinary = public house, tavern, restaurant. “We meet in the ordinary at the Camelot. You’ll be there?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Oregon grape root = a tonic and blood purifier. “Why don’t you bile up some Oregon grape-root. That’ll take most anything out of your blood.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Ormolu clock
ormolu = any of several copper and zinc or tin alloys resembling gold in appearance and used to ornament furniture, moldings, architectural details, and jewelry. “Ormsby was looking past her to the old-fashioned ormolu clock on the high mantel, comparing the time with his watch.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

oroide / oreide = alloy of copper and tin and zinc; used in imitation gold jewelry. "‘Curly,’ answered Tom, with scorn, ‘what you call your brains is only a oroide imitation of a dollar watch.’” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

orris = a kind of lace made of gold or silver. “There were her two little cambric pocket-handkerchiefs, remotely suggestive of orris, and bearing her monogram delicately wrought and characteristic.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

orris root = the root of certain iris plants, once important in western herbal medicine, now chiefly used for its fragrance in perfumes and potpourri. “As if orris-root were sprinkled in the folds of my brain.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

osier = willow branches used for basket weaving. “The brief blaze of the match showed him the fireplace and a pile of wood beside it, and a great osier basket of broken bark.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Ouida = pen name of English novelist who wrote historical romances. “‘Handsome fellow,’ went on the quartermaster, ‘and looks like a gentleman. Glories in the Ouida-esque name of Charles Morely Cairness.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

Our Young Folks = magazine of stories, poems, and activities for children (1865-1873). “Usually the book that I read is an old dilapidated bound volume of that erstwhile periodical, ‘Our Young Folks.’” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

Our Young Folks
out of fix = not in working order. “I got my gun out, all right, but the d—d thing was outer fix.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

over the river = comic rendering of au revoir. “The kid hollered ‘over the river’, and ducked for the first mining camp.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

over the road = in jail. “‘Why don’t you put them over the road?’ There was revenge in Ingalls’s eyes.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

overhaul = to catch up with, overtake. “I didn’t know that we’d fail to overhaul you.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

owly = cranky, uncooperative, negative. “Every minute is valuable now. The outlook is owly.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

Ox-eyed daisy
ox-eyed daisy = the loves-me-loves-me-not daisy, also called dog daisy, margarite, and moon daisy. “A bunch of prairie flowers, flaming cactus blossoms in scarlet and yellow, ox-eyed daisies, white clematis from the creek, seemed none the less decorative for the tin cup that held them.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

oyster = a close-mouthed person. “‘Was he always a good deal of an oyster?’ he asked abruptly. ‘He was terribly shy as a boy.’” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.


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. Lots of new ones to me here. I guess I never paid as much attention to the o words.

  2. Used to watch and like Grandpa Jones and his banjo. A funny guy. I'm like Charles, didn't know there was so many slang o words except Oscar, of course.