Saturday, May 24, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: S
(seven-up – shortening)

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.”

seven-up = card game for 2 or 3 players or 4 playing as partners (cf. pitch). “He sees Curly where he sits at seven-up, with his back turned towards him.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

seventy four = a naval vessel carrying 74 guns. “It rather resembled the Old Testament ark, or a Swedish or Dutch seventy-four, for, like that, it was built of planks and boards.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

shake of a horn = quickly. “He’ll be ready in the shake of a horn.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

shake-down = an impromptu bed. “I crawled over to my neighbors, the Whites, and Mother White made me a shake-down.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

shako = a tall, cylindrical military cap, usually with a peak (British) or visor (American) and sometimes tapered at the top. “They must be lofty enough to do this without recourse to high-heeled boots and two-foot shakos.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

shallop = a small open boat propelled by oars or sails and used in shallow waters. “Isn’t that a good bit like saying that the shallop must see to it that the wind doesn’t blow too hard for it?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shank = to walk. “I started one mornin’ to shank it, for a country they call Puget Sound.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

shantyman = a logger. “He goes poundin’ through the bush like a bunch o’ shantymen to their choppin’.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

sharp = an expert. “He was talking of it once to a man who was a sharp on things like mesmerism.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

sharp-shod =  of a horse, shod with shoes having sharpened projections to prevent slipping on ice. “Several years previous to this time Butch had been kicked square in the face by a sharp-shod horse.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

sharper = cheater, swindler, trickster. “You’re a nobody, sir, without a place or a name in the world; a common, low-bred, ignorant sharper.” Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth.

shave a note = to discount a promissory note at a very high rate of interest. “By the way, Hunter, that man you bought the team of got in a pinch and asked me to shave the note for him. It’s all right, is it?” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

shavetail = a second lieutenant; a noncommissioned officer in the army, from a nickname for an untrained mule marked by a shaved tail. “A bunch of ‘shave-tails’ were marched ashore amid a storm of good-natured raillery from the ‘vets’.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

shawl strap = a pair of leather straps fitted to a handle for carrying a rolled up shawl, steamer rug, parcel, or baggage. “I’ll go back with you and help out with the shawl-strap things.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shebang = hut, house, home, quarters. “There was a kind of sheebang – you couldn’t call it a hotel if you had any regard for the truth – on the outskirts of Walsh, for the accommodation of wayfarers.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold.

sheep = to take advantage in an annoying way; derived from the driving of sheep across a cattleman’s range. “While they was sheepin’ Skelty about his shootin’, two strangers rode up.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

sheet anchor = a person or thing that is very dependable and relied upon in the last resort. “See those settlers’ cabins at an angle of forty-five? Need a sheet anchor to keep ’em from sliding down the mountain!” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

shell man = operator of a shell game. “The great daily, I am proud to say, endureth still, a menace to road agents and shell men.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

shelling up = shooting firearms. “He was a reckless dare-devil, always foremost in the little amenities cowboys loved to indulge in when they came to town, such as shooting out the lights in saloons and generally ‘shelling up the settlement.’” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

Sherry, Louis = a New York restaurateur (1855-1926), whose first restaurant opened c1880 and became popular with the social elite. “Ah, Sherry’s! That’s since my time. I don’t suppose I should know my way about in little old New York now.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

sherry cobbler = a popular drink in the nineteenth century made of sherry, sugar, and lemon or orange wedges served over ice. “Noel laughingly ordered a sherry-cobbler, saying the day was far too hot for anything stronger.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

shift the cut = to cheat at cards by undoing another player’s cut of the deck, i.e., to return the top cards back to the top. “But this yere Piñon Bill shifts the cut on ’em. ‘If one of you-alls so much as cracks a cap,’ he says, ‘I blows the head offen this yere blessed child.’” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

shike-poke = a term of insult, believed to refer to the bittern (a species of heron) that defecates when frightened. “‘Yes! the poor old shike-poke!’ answered Johnson, without looking up from his task.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

shillalah = a cudgel; club made of hardword (from Irish Shillelagh). “With us it has been a sort of Donnybrook Fair: the agricultural voter has shillalahed the head he could reach most easily.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shilling shocker = a novel of crime or violence popular in late Victorian England and costing one shilling. “The Great Powers did not heed them, preferring to take advice from men who did not know an Apache from a Sioux—or either from the creation of the shilling shocker.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

shin = to quickly climb or clamber. “Bob shinned down to the river for water.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

shin oak = a deciduous, low-growing, thicket-forming shrub native chiefly to New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma; also called shinnery oak. “They ain’t such a much, and cain’t raise nothin’ but shin-oak and peanuts and chiggers.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

shin plaster = a money-note worth a quarter of a dollar. “Shin-plasters are what I want. A friend of mine has caught his leg in a trap.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

shindy = a noisy party, shindig; commotion. “I’d have him safe under lock and key before the shindy begins tonight, if it was my job.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

sinker = a sourdough biscuit. “I’d rather eat a wolf or a rustler or even a daring desperado than sinkers and beans, any day.” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.

shinny-on-your-own-side = stay within the lines; mind your own business (name given to an early version of field hockey). “They left me here to play shinny-on-your-own-side.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

ship a sea = to be awash with water coming over the side of a boat. “While he watched her, shouting repeatedly, against reason, the dugout shipped a sea that all but swamped her.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

ship’s biscuit = hardtack, a simple type of cracker or biscuit, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt, inexpensive and long-lasting. “Syrup and ship’s biscuits and corn-meal porridge were good enough.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

shirt band = a band of material sewn into a shirt for stiffening or finishing, as a neckband to which the collar is sewn or buttoned. “If you get time, you better show me how you want your shirt-bands let out.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

shoepac / shoepack = a heavy, warm, waterproof laced boot. “One might encounter the pioneers who had built the town, with their wives or women, the ilk of Nick Pelcher and Wilbur Arnold—the idols to whom the multitude in shoepacks and mackinaws must sell their vigour and mortgage their dreams.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

shoo-fly = a temporary railway track constructed for use while the main track is obstructed or under repair. “The train plunged down and out of the first ‘shoo-fly’around a burned bridge.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

shoot one’s bolt = to give everything one has, to be incapable of further effort. “Colonel Knowlton says he can hold them now, sir! He thinks they have shot their bolt.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

shoot the chutes = any phenomenon or experience of persistent or violent ups and downs as one fluctuating between prosperity and recession or elation and despair. “I never permitted myself to be identified with failures. When I see that things are shootin’ the chutes I pull out.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

shooting box = a small country house providing accommodation for a shooting party during hunting season. “It seems Stratton used this shooting box out here to cache his dope in.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

short cut = shredded tobacco. “He drew a sack of short cut from his pocket and filled his brier.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

short yearlings = steers between the ages of one and two years. “On other occasions the herd would consist of a certain kind, such as long yearlings, short yearlings, tail end and scabs.” Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.

shortening = beginning to dress a baby in short clothes. “Behold the pair fussing and sewing certain small garments with much tucking, trimming, insertioning, regulating said processes by the needs of some future mystery dight ‘shortening.’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.


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: Carol Buchanan, Gold Under Ice


  1. I know a few of these. seventy-four, shavetail. Some good uns here.

  2. Sinkers are not bad like my mother used to make. Shavetail was still used in the 1950's and 60's Navy for Ensigns with no experience.

  3. I use sharp quite a bit, too much really, meaning something looks stupendous. "Hey, that's sharp." Interesting to compare it to your above definition. Slight shift in meaning.

    1. The older meaning of sharp survives today in the phrase "card sharp."