Saturday, April 19, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: P
(piazza – popple)

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.”

piazza = a colonnaded porch. “Conrath’s shadow was thrown up against the side of the house, as he came along the piazza, walking with a heavy, careful step.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

Piazza, Verona, c1900
pick a crow with = to pick a quarrel with someone. “If you’ve got a crow to pick with me, bring it out in the open, and we’ll pull feathers in daylight.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

picket = small detachment of troops positioned towards the enemy to give early warning of attack. “And the riders, front and rear, were in the nature of pickets; for, though it was unlikely that any one would be met at that time of night, it was just as well to take no chances.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

picket house = a dwelling with walls made of stakes or poles driven into the ground. “A picket house is sorter like a Mexican jacal; it’s jest poles driv’ in the ground, clost together, an’ chinked, for a wall; the dirt fer a floor; an’ a roof put over of some sort.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

Picketwire / Pick Wire = a river in southeast Colorado, called La Riviere-de-la-Purgatoire (River of Lost Souls) by early French explorers. “When the cowboy followed the pioneer, knowing neither French nor Spanish, he onomatopoetized the last appellation into ‘The Pick Wire,’ which was as near as he could come to the pronunciation of Purgatoire.” Cyris Townsend Brady, Web of Steel.

picture hat = an elaborately decorated, broad-brimmed hat for women. “Her figure was perfection, her gowns of the quiet elegance of ultra-refinement always harmonious, as now, from the tip of the jeweled aigrette in her picture-hat to the points of her aristocratic shoe.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

pie foundry = an eating place. “At the Delmonico pie foundry he let out that he craved for sausages, mashed potatoes, and green tea.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

Pier glass
pier glass = a mirror placed between two windows, generally of a long and tall shape. “He paused before a tall pier-glass and surveyed himself through bloodshot eyes.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

pike = to leave, run off quickly. “Apache, who had either played possum for sheer devilment, or wakened up and tumbled—after this fellow piked out—and reckoned it was his long suit, though maybe they didn’t think so—well, Apache had ridden along and cached himself there in the scrub.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

piker = a vagrant, tramp, small-time gambler. “A few pikers followed and ‘stood up’ a coach occasionally, but the strong organized bands were extinct.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

pilgrim = a tenderfoot. “Two pilgrims that called theirselves sawyers not bein’ able to dodge a kick-back.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

pin pool = a variety of the game of billiards in which small wooden pins are set up to be knocked down by the balls. “Gusts of hurricane force that blew open the north door of the dining-room, picked up a great pin-pool board standing across a biscuit-shooting opening in the partition.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

pinch-ins = a corset. “If I ever git me another of these “pinch-ins”,’  panted Mrs. Terriberry, ‘you’ll know it. Take holt and lay back on them strings, will you?’” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

pinchbeck = an alloy of copper and zinc resembling gold, used in watchmaking and costume jewelry. “Then he got together his small belongings—an old campaign hat, a pair of boots, a tin of tobacco, and a pinchbeck bracelet which he had found one Sunday in the Park.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

pink = fashionable, exclusive. “‘You are the pink of dragomans,’ she said. ‘Don’t you want to go and smoke?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

pink = to nick with a sword or bullet. “I had been expecting one of them to draw to that card, and while his arm was pulled back I pinked him from the hip.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

pink tea = any frivolous social gathering, attended largely by women. “In them days there wasn’t a railroad in that section, ranches were scatterin’, and people weren’t givin’ pink teas to every stranger that rode up—especially when they were as hard-lookin’ as we were.” Rex Beach, Pardners.

Julius Pintsch
Pintsch = compressed gas developed by German inventor Julius Pintsch (1815-1884), used for lighting railroad cars. “The draftsman, facing the group under the Pintsch globe at the other end of the open compartment, stopped suddenly and his big jaw grew rigid.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

pip = ill humor, poor health; a disease of poultry and other birds. “‘You certainly have about as much spunk as a chicken with the pip!’ he said contemptuously.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

pipe = to follow, pursue, inspect. “I think he piped me as I blew in, but I ain’t sure.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

pipe off = to watch, notice, look at. “His hat was slouched, he’d one cock eye, / That ‘piped off’ every passer-by.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

pippin = a perfect example. “There’s a girl for you! Say! What ’d we do without her, eh? She’s a pippin!” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

piquet = a trick-taking card game for two players, using a 32-card deck consisting of cards from seven to the ace. “He never joined any of the groups of piquet players around the tables.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

piroot = to go, travel, move about, explore. “The hawg comes pirootin’ about Hoskins’s fence, an’ he goes through easy.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

pistol = whiskey bottle. “‘Gimme a pull at yer pistol, wont ye?” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

pitch hole = a defect in a road or trail, a pothole. “The huge sleighs made pitch-holes in the road. Altogether it was discouraging.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

plank up = to put money down, to lay out money. “He won next time. Won again, then went three times to the bad. Planked up the fourth time and won; the fifth time and won.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

plant = a hiding place for stolen goods. “I’ll go with her. It’s no use for me to get to the plant before afternoon.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

play ducks and drakes = to throw money away, squander; originally, to skip stones on water. “And it is a charming thing, is it not, to hear a man who has made ducks and drakes of his life, and who will probably continue to do so until he, or somebody else, blows his brains out.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

play hob = to cause mischief or disturbance (related to hobgoblin). “It weakens the spirit, and it plays the very hob with the women.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

play horse = to fool around, indulge in horseplay. “It shorely tries me the way them aliens plays hoss.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

play hunkto get even. “‘Th’ wall-eyed piruts,’ he muttered, and then scratched his head for a way to ‘play hunk’.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20.

play up = to give trouble. “He was equally ready to play his employer up should any one else offer a higher price.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

plead the baby act to plead ignorance or inexperience as an excuse for a mistake or wrongdoing. “Of course I believe ye. Not that you’re any too blame good, Bob, but you ain’t the kind what pleads the baby act.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

pliers man = derisive name for a cowboy working for a fenced ranch, carrying pliers to mend fences. “She left the road and run agin the fence, cuttin’ the wires as clean in two as a pliers-man.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

plucked = courageous. “She was that well-plucked she’d laughed at the idea of spending her nights at Flynn’s.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

plucked = to be flunked for failure to pass an exam. “He had always done just enough to prevent him being plucked.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

pluffy = puffy and fat. “A man with a rolling gait, heavy brows, and red, pluffy hands, a big, unwieldy man in a dark, dusty suit, came in and sat down at my table.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

plug tobacco = chewing tobacco made by pressing together cured tobacco leaves in a sweet (often molasses-based) syrup and cut into pieces (plugs). “He was in his shirt sleeves for greater comfort, and he smoked particularly strong plug tobacco in a brier pipe.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

plum duff = a heavy pudding of flour, water, suet, and raisins or currants, boiled in a cloth or bag. “Marthy remembered your taste, Jack; und a half dozen of Mis’ Effens’s saucer pies, all kinds; und six of mein meat turn-ofers, und plumy duff, und a loaf of salt risin’, und a loaf of plain bread.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

Bustle frame, 1873
plumpers = a contrivance for expanding skirts; a bustle or hoop. “I’ve a mind to get some red paint and what those things, plumpers, and blonde my hair and start out on the war path.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

plunge = to spend money or bet recklessly, to run into debt. “Say! But ye’re the stuff! Always light on yer feet. Gawd! How yer used ter plunge, too.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

plunger = a reckless gambler. “And the chief was the biggest plunger of all.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

plunk = a dollar. “You stake yer bottom plunk on it, d’ye see?” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

pocket miner = a prospector or miner who extracted ore in small increments to pay expenses and make a modest income. “While the Scot did not lose much love for the pocket-miner, he was well aware of his grit.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

point out = to leave, cancel out, die. “The one of us who draws a black bean is to p’int out after the lieutenant.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

pointer = a boat developed in Canada in the 19th century for use in the logging industry. “We had to’ help them into a thirty-foot ‘pointer’ made t’ carry a crew o’ eight shanty-men ’n’ their supplies on the spring drives.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

pole = a long tapering wooden shaft fitted to the front of a cart, carriage, or other conveyance and attached by a yoke or collar to the draught animals. “She heard only the pole and harness jigging a merry accompaniment to the beat of quick feet, whirring song of swift wheels.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

pomatum = a perfumed ointment for grooming the hair; pomade. “In five minutes he was gone in a cloud of dust, the tatters of the hat on his pomatumed head.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

pomelo = grapefruit (Spanish). “She could think of no further retort to his pretty speech, and busied herself with showing him how to eat the grape-fruit, wondering, vaguely, where he could have been, in the desert, not to have encountered pomelos.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

Pommery Sec = a French champagne introduced to America in 1872 by a New York City wine importer, Charles Graef. “From each bottle knock the neck, / Fill each glass with Pommery Sec.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

pone = cornmeal bread made in a skillet. “Here is a little crock half full of eggs—prairie-chicken, I guess—say, can you make a pone?” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

pongee = a soft thin cloth woven from Chinese or Indian raw silk or an imitation thereof. “The men strolled in to luncheon in shirts of lightest flannel or pongee.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

pony = a small drinking glass, or the liquid contained in it. “As often as he had a moment to spare he went down the street to the nearest saloon and drank a pony of whiskey.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

popple = any of various poplar trees, found in northern forests. “Where the Siwash had pointed, he made out only a clump of popple, pale in the somber sea of spruce, and started toward it.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.


 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: Michael Zimmer, Leaving Yuma


  1. We had some chickens and the pip was going around. Boys' (and men's) sore nipples was called the pip.

  2. plumpers...I seem to recall this also referred to cotton-stuffed pads that helped too-thin ladies help out their figures a bit in the bosom and rear (back in the days when Rubenesque forms were the prevailing mode).