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.”
skive = the action of cutting into something; shaving, paring, trimming. “Great yellow rolls of butter into which the knives of the men skived deeply.” James Hendryx, The Promise.
skookum = Chinook jargon for strong, powerful. “Bring dynamite – kiyu skookum powder.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.
skookum box = a place onboard ship for confining troublesome passengers. “There too is the skookum box—that is, the strong room or lock-up. To it the first mate of the Cassiar is wont to shoot too noisy drunks.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.
skunk = to defeat, get the better of. “All of Sprague’s boys an’ his gals had some spunk / an’ he bragged that none on ’em nobody could skunk.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.
sky scout = a parson. “He was dressed all in black, a sky-scout of sorts, but dusty and making signs as though he couldn’t shout for thirst.” Roger Pocock, Curly.
sky piece = any form of headgear. “I started out in a tin suit with a sort of kettle turned upside down an’ covered with feathers for a sky-piece.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
skypiece = brains. “If you only got a twice-by-two skypiece all the schoolin’ in the world won’t land you on top of the heap.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.
slack water = a cessation in the strong flow of a current or tide. “Just beyond Church House we lay at anchor for an hour or two, waiting for slack water in the Euclataws.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.
slant = an opportunity to seize an advantage. “Silas was more than pleased to be able to get a ‘slant’ (to use his own expression) at his old enemy, Sim Lory.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
slant = to move off or toward. “With these remarks he slanted away back to town.” Roger Pocock, Curly.
Slanting Annie = well-remembered prostitute who lived and died in Creede, Colorado. “All about were new-made graves, where Joe Simmons and ‘Slanting Annie’ slept side by side.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.
slap-up = excellent, first-rate, lavish. “We’ll make it a dandy, slap-up affair as’ll par’lyze folk.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.
slash = an area of debris left by logging. “He had something treed about a mile from the house, across a ridge over in some slashes.” Andy Adams, The Outlet.
slashing = very fine, splendid. “Immediately after dinner Casey brought up his road team, two wiry, slashing chestnuts.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.
slaunchways = diagonally, slantways. “When night would come, Cupid would go through his lessons, eat his supper, an’ fling himself slaunch-ways on the wide bunk.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
sleeper = a railroad tie. “He led Clara to some sleepers which lay piled below the railroad embankment near by.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.
sleeper = a calf that has been ear-marked, but not branded. “Every owner has a certain brand, as you know, and then he crops and slits the ears in a certain way, too. In that manner he don't have to look at the brand, except to corroborate the ears; and, as the critter generally sticks his ears up inquirin’-like to anyone ridin’ up, it’s easy to know the brand without lookin’ at it, merely from the ear-marks. Once in a great while, when a man comes across an unbranded calf, and it ain’t handy to build a fire, he just ear-marks it and let’s the brandin’ go till later. But it isn’t done often, and our outfit had strict orders never to make sleepers.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.
slimpsy / slimsy = flimsy, frail. “Monday mornin’s and they’re sleepy and kind o’ dreamy and slimpsy, and good f’r nothin’ on Tuesday and Wednesday.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.
slip = a railway switch, where one pair of tracks crosses another, allowing a train to change from one track to the other. “One line of wagons—laden with scrapers, ‘slips’ and ‘wheelers,’ tents and camp equipage, the timbers and machinery of a pile-driver, and a thousand and one other things—was little by little extricating itself from the tangle.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.
slippy = agile, nimble, speedy. “If yer don’t move—an’ move mighty slippy—you’ll be dumped headlong into the muck.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
slope = to depart, move off; leave without paying; escape. “‘You know that is Bill Lawton’s wife?’ he said. Taylor nodded. ‘The one who sloped with the Greaser?’” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.
slope = to move in a leisurely manner, amble. “Next day Oregon sloped into the office, asked for his time, was paid off.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.
slouch hat = a wide-brimmed felt or cloth hat with a chinstrap, commonly worn as part of a military uniform. “He saw her, and without the hesitation of an instant raised his slouch hat and kept on.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.
slough = a card game for 4-6 players, originating in Germany; also known as solo. “He no longer found diversion in his nightly game of ‘slough’ in the card room of the Terriberry House.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.
slow elk = cows being rustled. “The big non-resident cattle companies were the chief sufferers through losses of their ‘slow elk’.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.
slum = a stew of meat and vegetables, especially potatoes and onions (cf. slumgullion). “He rolled up his sleeves an’ started to peel spuds for the evenin’ slum.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
slumgullion = cheap food and drink. “Mace ain’t makin’ enough money passin’ slumgullion to them passenger cattle all day, so she’s a’goin’ over to Silverstein’s ev’ry night after this to fix up his books.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.
slush lamp = a crude lamp burning tallow, grease, or fats obtained from boiling meat. “The slush lamp was burning low, and I saw Bella at the door.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.
smack = a sailing boat used for fishing during the 19th century. “The rival notes of an accordion floated over from a passing fishing-smack.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.
smallclothes = men’s close-fitting knee breeches. “His ruffles were all of very fine needlework, his smallclothes of Genoese velvet, his jacket ropy with precious embroidery.” Mary Austin, Isidro.
smart as paint = exceedingly smart; a phrase apparently originating with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. “The girl is as smart as paint; at the first inkling of your purpose she’ll curl up—shut up like a rat trap.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
Smart Set, The = a literary magazine founded in 1900 and edited by H. L. Mencken. “The Boss’s son, deep in his June number of the Smart Set when informed, gave utterance to several expressive oaths.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!
smilax = a slender vine with glossy foliage, popular as a floral decoration. “They bore it into a large, unheated room that smelled of dampness and disuse and furniture polish, and set it down under a hanging lamp ornamented with jingling glass prisms and before a ‘Rogers group’ of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.
smoke wagon = six gun. “As we drew closer we made our smoke-wagons ready, while his two Greasers kept their hands in plain view, and harmless.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.
smoking concert = social event for men only with a program of music and comedy and often including drinking. “He who worships a Goddess in spirit and in truth is not likely to slide too often from his chair beneath the table, at a smoking concert.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!
smut = any of several fungal plant diseases characterized by the formation of black powdery spores. “He intended a visit to the barn, where his man was dipping seed wheat in bluestone solution to kill the smut.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.
smutch = blacken, dirty, smudge. “Tillie had a great deal of charity for black sheep, but she believed in them having a corral to themselves, and not allowing them the chance of smutching the spotless flocks that have had good luck and escaped the mire.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.
snag boat = a steamboat with an apparatus for removing impeding debris (snags) from inland waters. “As I once said to Sidney Rigdon, our boat is an old snag boat and has never been out of Snag-harbour.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.
snake = to drag or pull forcibly, with rope or chain. “Here, ketch to my pommel, and I’ll snake you out.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.
snake feeder = dragonfly. “Here the gaudy-winged ‘snake feeder’ skipped from side to side, across the waters.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.
snake weed = Any of various plants reputed to have the power to cure snakebite. “In a
land like New Mexico, what with barrancas, arroyos, waste sand hills, timbered land, and miles where there is nothing but snake-weed, it takes upon an average from eighty to a hundred acres to support a cow.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.
snakeroot = an herb growing in rich, shady woods; taken as a stimulant and tonic and believed to be an antidote for bites of snakes and mad dogs. “Myrtle Swanstrom was askin’ me the other day what I thought of marriage. ‘It’s a quick jump,’ I says, ‘ from molasses to snake-root.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.
snakes = alcoholic hallucinations, delirium tremens. “His groping brain grasped at the idea, and it gave him strength—better the ‘snakes’ than that!” James Hendryx, The Promise.
snap = a share, portion. “When any man offers you a gilt-edged snap, try to figure out why he doesn’t keep it all for himself.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.
snap = a homesteading claim taken by a person, who proves up on it, gets a patent, and then sells out. “They don’t often come here to live. This here’s a snap.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.
Previous: S (shorthorn – skitter)
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