Saturday, May 31, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: S
(shorthorn – skitter)

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.”

shorthorn = tenderfoot, newcomer. “Let the shorthorn go sleep onder a mesquite-bush; it’ll do him good a whole lot.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

shot in the locker = ammunition and powder. “Ez soon as he got inter trouble he knowed whar ter find a fren’ whut’ll stan’ by him ez long ez there’s a shot in ther locker—savvy?” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

shot tower = a building formerly used in the production of shot, in which molten lead was dropped from a great height into water, thus cooling it and forming the shot. “Hills twenty, thirty miles away rose like apparitions, astonishingly magnified. Willows became elms, a settler’s shanty rose like a shot-tower.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

shotgun messenger = a guard on a stagecoach or train, to oversee a valuable private shipment, such as a strongbox or safe; typically rode next to the stagecoach driver and carried a short (or sawed-off) 12- or 10-gauge double-barreled shotgun, loaded with buckshot. “Only the driver and a friend were on it, and both of them knew the shot-gun messenger and the sheriff, and they asked in some astonishment what the trouble was.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.

show-me = skeptical; believing nothing until is it demonstrated. “He belonged to the show-me club, an’ had all his facical muscles spiked fast for fear they’d come loose an’ grin before he saw the point himself.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

show shop = a place of exhibition, a theatre. “It was thar, in their ‘show shop’ one Sunday, that I heard a quaint sermon begun.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

show the white feather = display cowardice. “His victim had pulled an engine throttle too long to show the white feather, but he was dying by the time he had dragged a revolver from his pocket.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

shrammed = shriveled with cold. “He stepped briskly from his house, for he was ‘schrammed’ with cold in his white drill clothing.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

shy = to throw, fling something carelessly or casually. “One, their chief, even as he howled in apprehension, shied a bone-tipped spear up the bluff.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

Sibley tent
Sibley tent = a conical-shaped tent used by the military, patented 1856, twelve feet high and eighteen feet in diameter, with a single central pole, housing about a dozen men. “Before the gray of morning they were safely ensconced under a bluff, waiting for the daylight and within a mile of the long line of Sibley tents.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

side eye = a sideways glance. “I just took one side-eye at Jabez an’ his face looked like a storm cloud at a picnic.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

side meat = salt pork and bacon taken from the sides of a hog. “You’ll find lots uv pore corn-juice, canned goods, ig’nance, and side-meat.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

side-kicker = partner, accomplice (cf. sidekick). “‘You’re a sassy side-kicker,’ he observed good-humoredly.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

sideline = a line for tying together the fore and hind legs on one side of an animal. “Just picket him or hobble him with a good side-line.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

sign camp = a line camp, where line riders lived while working. “We’ll show Red Dog an’ sim’lar villages they ain’t sign-camps compared with Wolfville.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

signal service = national weather service originated in 1870 by the Army Signal Corps. “Jode received us at the signal-service office, and began to show us his instruments with the careful pride of an orchid-collector.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

Silenus and donkey
Silenus = in mythology, the oldest, wisest, and most drunken follower of Dionysus. “He was accomplishing absolutely nothing by continuing the struggle, nothing more than a woman yoked to a Silenus hoping to reform him when he daily grew worse under her eyes.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

silver-tip = grizzly bear. “The preacher shook hands with ’em all around – he had a grip that woudn’t be no disgrace for a silver-tip.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

Simmons, Joe = friend and colleague of Soapy Smith; died of pneumonia in 1892 in Creede, Colorado. “Joe Simmons had done very little to win the applause of the newspaper fraternity, but, dying as he did on the eve of the first issue of a great daily he made the hit of his life.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

simoleon = a dollar. “I’m sort o’ estimatin’ in my mind that we’re ahead about four hundred simoleons.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

Simon-pure = the genuine article; the real thing. “I have been reading of Southern gentlemen all my life, and there is the Simon-pure, only with the great heart this generous big State gives to all of its men.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

single footer = an unmarried person. “If they’s single-footers like me an’ ain’t wedded none; campin’ ’round at taverns an’ findin’ of ’em mockeries; they wishes they has a wife a whole lot.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

singlefoot = a rapid gait of a horse in which each foot strikes the ground separately. “By the time he gets half a mile out of Pimienta, I singlefoots up beside him on my bronc.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

sinker = a dollar. “Got ten thousand sinkers, an’ ninety thousand more coming.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

sinker = a pancake, round breakfast biscuit or roll. “He was not alone to have the pleasure of his sister’s company during the summer, but would enjoy a respite from the “camp sinkers” and “mulligan” of the boarding house.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

Sir Oracle = a dogmatical person; one not to be contradicted (from Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice). “He was no Sir Oracle, and had never pretended to be, and he began to doubt himself and his conclusions.” John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman.

Sisera = an oppressor of the ancient Israelites, finally defeated in battle, where it is reported even the stars fought against him (Judges 5:20). “It’s always darkest before the dawn, and the stars in their courses are against Sisera.” Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K&A Train Robbery.

sit in the dry = to lack a drink (alcoholic). “Are you again so drunk that you can’t see that we are sitting in the dry?” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

sitkum = Chinook jargon for half. “ ‘Huh!’ Simon grunted. ‘Mebbyso white man; mebbyso sitkum Siwash.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Siwash = derogatory term used to refer to Indians in the Pacific Northwest; from French, savage.  “Even a hulking Siwash, with his squaw and children, came dragging down the valley in the wake of the freshets.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Siwash logger = a beachcomber. “I am a Siwash logger. Well, and what then? Answer me now!” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

sixes and sevens = a state of total confusion or disarray. “Then things’ll go to sixes and sevens, as they did after Sophy died.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

skate = a mean or contemptible person. “Collectively, I’m assoomin’ you’re the darndest lot of skates I ever run up agin’.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

skeezicks = rascal. “ ‘Here’s Carlota,’ he says, ‘She’d make a figger fer a book.’ Carlota!—the little skeezicks!” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

skew-gee = crooked, slanted, cockeyed. “The dashboard’s smashed into matches, the tumblin’-rods is broke, the spark-condenser’s kaflummuxed, and the hull blamed business is skew-gee.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

skilly = a thin oatmeal soup or gruel. “If you don’t tell us all you know, in you go to Calford and a diet of skilly’ll be your lot for some time to come.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

skin = to glance at, examine. “I’m skinnin’ my kyards a bit interested anyhow, bein’ in the hole myse’f.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

skin = to run off. “I skun fer Hairoil Johnson’s shack to borra a diff’rent suit of clothes offen the parson.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

skin game = any form of gambling designed to fleece the uninitiated. “I ain't going to stand for putting up a summer breeze ag’in’ that feller’s good dough—that’s a skin game, to speak it pleasantly.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

skin out = to renig on a debt. “You have all treated me fine an’ I hate to skin out without saying good-bye but I have not the nerve.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

skin the deck = in gambling, to palm cards from the deck. “Monody would ’a’ done anything he could for me,—well, he lay down his life an’ I reckon that’s about skinnin’ the deck.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

skip = a bucket, cage, or vehicle for lowering and raising materials or workers in a mine or quarry. “He mounted the skip and went down the incline, stopping on every level and dodging into each drift and tunnel.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

skipper = small insect. “In the Old Dominion the farmers sprinkle a little clean hickory-wood ash over it when salted down so as to give it an appetizing flavor and also the keep the skippers off.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

skirt dance = a ballet dance popular in the 19th century distinguished by the dancer’s manipulations of her long flowing and varicolored skirts or drapery. “This was to be followed by ‘The Lamont Sisters, Winnie and Violet, serio-comiques and skirt dancers.’” Frank Norris, McTeague.

skite = an objectionable person. “An’ every’ time them skites o’ hosses would come to whar’ I was, they’d go twenty feet wide o’ the noose.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

skitter = mosquito. “They were stretched out well to leeward of the fire, so that the smoke passed across them, driving away a few of the less audacious ‘skitters.’” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.


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: Alethea Williams, Walls for the Wind


  1. show the white feather. I remember that from some book I read. I thought shorthorn only referred to cattle.

  2. Another fine batch of skewed ole words and usage..