Saturday, May 3, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: R
(rack – rill)

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.”

rack = to ride. “Well, you hitch up and rack out with part of the machinery, so you’ll have an alibi.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

rackabone = an emaciated person or animal, a skeleton. “I was on my way to the store, but when I saw his old rack-a-bone team, I turned off to see you.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

racket store = a five- and ten-cent store. “What amused me most however, was an article written especially for one of the Megory papers by a keeper of a racket store and a known shouter for the town.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest.

rackets = snowshoes. “As the freezing nights hardened the crust upon the surface of the sodden snow, Jacques discarded his rackets.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

raffle = rubbish, debris. “The log walls hung with mackinaw garments, moccasins, and snowshoes, the water pail on the shelf beside the door, the bunks with their heavy gray blankets and bearskins—all the raffle that accumulates in a foreman’s winter quarters.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

rag = to dance to ragtime music. “She gave several small dinners and a dancing party, devoted to the new excitement of ‘ragging,’ in which no one became more proficient than herself.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

ragtag and bobtail = riffraff, rabble; also rag and bobtail. “The companions of the stricken brute—the gaunt, tireless leaders, who had traveled beside him in the van, and the rag-tag and bobtail alike—fell upon him tooth and nail.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

ragtown = a tent city; generic term for a new settlement with temporary structures. “We stayed two days in Dodge city, a typical Western ‘ragtown’ in that June, 1874.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

rail pile = a pile fabricated from railroad rails which are welded together and driven as a unit. “I’d rather tear out my heart and burn it on a rail-pile than to let him go.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

“Rakes of Mallow” = a traditional Irish song and polka first written down in the 1780s; now a Notre Dame fight song. “Tom Riley has deceived me; he promised to fiddle the ‘Rakes of Mallow’ to me, in order that I might die like a brave lad of Mallow.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

rally = ridicule, make fun of. “Warren Rodney made the acquaintance of Sally Tumlin, who rallied him on being a ‘squaw man.’” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

rambo = a variety of eating or cooking apple which ripens late in autumn and has a yellowish skin streaked with red. “His eyes were clear and guileless—like skies over green wheat fields—and his cheeks suggested Rambo apples, slowly tinting in the sun.” John G. Neihardt, Life’s Lure.

ramp = to act threateningly or violently, to rage. “He didn’t mention everlastin’ fire. And he didn’t ramp and pitch and claw his hair.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

rampike = a standing dead tree or tree stump, especially one killed by fire. “He pressed briskly but warily along the ridge, availing himself of the shelter of every rampike in his path.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

ranch manners = rules of behavior considered polite by western standards. “‘You are the rudest boy,’ laughed Mrs. Beach; ‘ranch manners, I suppose.’” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

ranikaboo = irksome nonsense. “Now I warns you, an’ that’s got to do. If Jerry an’ you gets tangled up yereafter, you-all ain’t goin’ to harbor no revenges ag’in him, nor make no ranikaboo plays to get even.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

rat = a hair-pad with tapering ends used as the base of the elaborate pompadour hairstyles affected by women in the late 19th century. “Her mussed bang ejected the big, woolly sausage of a ‘rat.’ But no one guffawed.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

rat house = of unsound mind. “I’m always scared to ask ’em what the rudiments o’ that game is for they’re always kind o’ rat-house.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

rating = a scolding. “Could she really have given Hulse a rating for such a trifle as that?” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

rattler = rickety vehicle, esp. a train. “A couple of years after that I was beatin’ it on a rattler goin’ west, and I drops off at that town.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

rattling = very good. “I never knowed she was such a rattlin’ cook.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

rave and cave = quarrel, complain, object. “I don’t row often, but when I does—oh, lordy! Lordy! I just raves and caves.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

rawhide = a Texas cowboy. “I doubt if I ever should have succeeded in persuading an outfit of real rawhides to ride out under my leadership but for dear old Tex.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

reach = the connecting member between the front and rear axles of a wagon. “At last I ups an’ make a hammock outen a Navajo blanket, which is good an’ strong, an’ swings the Colonel to the reach of the trail wagon.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

reasty = covered with a kind of rust and having a rancid taste; applied to dried meat. “All his guests were expected to partake of reasty pork, potatoes, flapjacks, green tea and fruits at the same table.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

Red River cart. 1887
red = a cent. “I hadn’t a red after I’d settled up Ed’s debts an’ small matters.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

Red River cart = a strong two-wheeled cart formerly used on the Canadian prairies. “Just before they came to the valley Carter dashed around the Red River cart of a Cree squaw.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Red River Jig = a traditional dance of the Canadian Métis. “The old man was tuning it down for the plaintive requirements of the Red River Jig.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

red-eye = strong, poor quality whisky. “Billy Dime might make it if he didn’t get too much red-eye in him first.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

redowa = a fast, triple-time dance from Bohemia. “One has only to find a partner and—in the recherché language of the plains—hoof it to the extent of his money’s worth, whether fate happens to have given him a reel or a redowa.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

reefer = an overcoat. “McCloud ordered the flat cars cut off the train and the engine whistle sounded at short intervals, and, taking Stevens, buttoned his reefer and started up the grade after the three trackmen.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

rep = a fabric with a ribbed surface used in curtains and upholstery. “It represented Trina, her veil thrown back, sitting very straight in a rep armchair.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

Woman with reticule
reticule = a woman’s small handbag, with a drawstring. “At the gate was Prudence Corson, gowned for travel, reticule in hand.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

revenue cutter = a small lightly armed boat used to enforce customs regulations and catch smugglers. “He had once been a revenue cutter engineer, on the Pribyloff patrol.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

rhodomontade = vain and empty boasting. “We’d list while the parson preached and prayed, / For he didn’t give cant or rhodomontade.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

ribbon grass = a grass that has leaf blades striped with white. “Mose, who had caught these fish, lounged on a couch that, built of shakes, extended along three sides of the room, and was furnished with woven mats of ribbon grass.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

Richards, Laura E. = prolific American writer of children’s books, biographies, and poetry (1850-1943). “I am not that quaint conceit, a girl: the sort of person that Laura E. Richards writes about.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

rid up = to clear a table of food and dishes. “She went on ‘ridding up’ the counter.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

ride and tie = the sharing of a horse by two people. (One person walks as the other rides ahead a distance, ties the horse, and continues walking. Catching up to the horse, the walker then rides the horse, passing the second person and repeating the process.) Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

ride chuck-line = said of a cowboy riding from ranch to ranch, usually during the winter months, in search of work; explained further as follows:  “All ranches make him welcome for a night or so, when he again moves on.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

ride Indian = Ramon Adams lists “ride a la Comanché,” meaning to ride hanging on the side of a horse, as the Comanche did in battle. “Some of the old experienced brush horses, depended more in breaking their way through the brush, and you could by ‘riding Indian’ all over them.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

ride sign = to do the work of a line rider, that is riding the perimeter of a ranch’s range to prevent straying; also pulling cattle out of bogs, doctoring them, and discouraging predators. “He’s been ridin’ sign on Radford an’ says he’s responsible for all the stock that we’ve been missin’ in the last six months.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.

ridered = of a fence strengthened with braces (riders). “Bud ran down the cotton-row, leaped the staked and ridered fence like a squirrel, crossed over to the edge of the dry creek, and stopped under a pecan-tree.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

riffle = to shuffle cards. “He riffled the pasteboards in a manner that caused his owner to pat himself and eject a few gutturals of admiration.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

rifle pit = a pit or short trench affording shelter to riflemen in firing at an enemy “It was a natural rifle-pit affording him seclusion and shelter.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

rigging slinger = a logging worker who chains a log and attaches it to a towline. “Skilled artists—hook-tenders, rigging slingers, engineers—hated to work for a man who had never learned the ABC of classical methods.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

right smart = considerable; noteworthy; quickly. “Keep a right smart distance from men like me.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

rightabout = the opposite direction. “His firm gaze sent my timid orbs to the right-about.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

rill = to flow through. “A sudden hope rilled him.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.


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: Alan Ladd, The Proud Rebel (1958)


  1. I've heard ragtown and rackabone. Rackabone is a very nice word, I should say.

  2. I wonder if there are a lot of marshes around Mallow.

  3. The Rakes of Mallow, as any John Wayne fan can tell you, is the tune Michael O'Flynn begins to whistle as Wayne sets off to haul Maureen O'Hara from the train in 'The Quiet Man.'

    I've seen the phrase "redding up" used by people in the Pennsylvania Dutch country to mean tidying up.

    1. I also know red up from having lived for a while in Pittsburgh.

  4. Thanks, Ron. And I have an idea for another reference book.