Saturday, June 14, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: S
(snap a cap – spondulix)

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.”

snap a cap = to fire a shot. “The watch officer had caught him in the act, followed him into his lodge, leveled his pistol, and snapped a cap in the Crow’s face.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

snapped corn = corn that has been removed from the stalk but remaining in the husk. “As Elizabeth started to the house, she noticed her father and the boys coming from the cornfield with a wagon-load of snapped corn.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

snapshot = a quick, hurried shot fired without deliberate aim, especially at a moving target. “But Tib, ignoring his annoyer and after foolishly chanting some lines about ‘Lions to right of ’em, lions to left of ’em,’ pivoted and raked my villain by a neat snap-shot.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

snoozer = sheep or sheep man. “Hed been raised a cow pony and didn’t much care for snoozers.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

snoozer = a person. “They played the thing up to the limit, and took in each snoozer and bloke.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

snow wreath = snow drift. “To be sure, there be times when one canna stir for the snow wreaths, but that’s to be allowed for.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

snow-on-the-mountain = Euphorbia marginata, an annual native from Minnesota to Colorado and Texas; light green leaves with broad, silver variegated edges. “Butterflies hovered over the snow-on-the-mountain.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

snuffy = wild, spirited. “There was one snuffy little bay gelding that he meant to turn over to Luck for a saddle horse, and he wanted to get him caught and in the stable.” B M. BowerThe Phantom Herd.

soak = to hit, sock. “I guess you didn’t reach out an’ soak me—a cop!” James Hendryx, The Promise.

soap hole = a water-saturated pocket of sand, silt, and clay. “‘Bogged down, pardner?’ she inquired in a friendly voice, as she rode up behind and drew rein. ‘I’ve been in that soap-hole myself.’” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

soap weed = any one of several plants in the West and Southwest used by Indians and Anglo pioneers to make soap, especially yucca. “On the broad levels were the yellow tinted lines that told of the presence of soap-weed.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.

“Sobre las Olas” = a popular waltz by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas (1868-1894). “The fiddles stopped their cruel liberties with the beautiful measures of ‘Sobre las Olas,’ and Buck led his panting partner up to our group and courteously introduced us.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

sockdolager = a decisive blow or answer; something exceptional. “You caught me a sockdolager on the jaw as I fell, and I just this minute came to.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “Loved I Not Honor More.”

soda to hock = from first to last card in the game of faro; figuratively, the whole thing, start to finish, beginning to end. “Gamblers and businessmen runs opposite from soda to hock. One takes nothin’ but chances; the other takes everything except.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Folks.

soft snap = a post or job requiring little time or effort. “You can’t expect a fellow to let himself be arrested for nothing, just so you can keep a soft snap as deputy sheriff.” Florence Finch Kelly, With Hoops of Steel.

soldier = to pretend to work, shirk. “I’ll have no sojerin’ on this job! Understand?” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

solemncholy – solemn and melancholy, woe-begone, troubled. “Laugh with us, old solemncholy! See the ground spin! Laugh, I say, or be a hitchin’ post, and we’ll dance the May-pole round you!” Agnes Christina Laut, Lords of the North.

solo = a card game in which one player plays against the others in an attempt to win a specified number of tricks. “Except for the four others who played ‘solo’ all day, it was a grizzled, dejected company.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

son-of-a-gun-in-a-sack = a cowboy delicacy made of dried fruit rolled in dough, sewed in a sack, and steamed (aka son-of-a-bitch-in-a-sack). “Once I crawled in a winder and et up a batch of ‘son-of-a-gun-in-a-sack’ that the feller who lived there had jest made.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

“Song That Reached My Heart, The” = popular 1887 ballad by US composer, Julian Jordan (1850-1927). “He played ‘The Song that Reached My Heart,’ till Burrill Wade went loony.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

sonsy = plump, buxom, comely; cheerful, good-natured (Scot, Irish). “Sarah is nae bonny, but she micht be sonsy and of a savin’ disposeetion.” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

soogey-moogey = a mixture of lye, soap, and water used to clean paintwork and woodwork on a ship or boat; a never ending job. “Work such as that is a more buoyant affair than the deadly treadmill work that goes on, soogey-moogey, day in and day out, for forty-nine perfunctory weeks of the year.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

sooner = a person who jumps the gun; someone who settled homestead land before it was officially made available; someone branding cattle before the date set by the roundup association. “Didn’t I tell yu that ef our Ol’ Man wa’n’t nothin’ but a little ol’ tende’foot kid, he’d make a sooner, poco tiempo?” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

Painting by Joaquín Sorolla, 1909
Sorolla, Joaquín = Spanish portrait and landscape painter (1863-1923). “The walls were decorated with long-necked swan-necked Gibson girls and Watts’ photogravures and Turner color prints and naked Sorolla boys bathing in Spanish seas.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

sounder = an electromagnetic device used in telegraphy to convert electric signals sent over wires into audible sounds. “The Juniberg man gave Oleson his release and the order to proceed with due care while the sounder was still clicking a further communication from headquarters.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

sotol = a plant native to northern Mexico and the Southwest, commonly known as Desert Spoon; a distilled spirit made from the same plant. “We cut the old trail Tomas was heading us toward, and shortly thereafter entered the mouth of a frightfully rough cañon, its bottom and slopes thickly covered with nopal, sotol, and mesquite.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

soul-case = the body. “It’ll pretty near shake his soul-case to pieces to do it.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

Soul-Sleeper = advocate of the belief that after death the soul sleeps until Judgment Day. “I’m a Soul-Sleeper myself, an’ I’m mighty willin’ to let ’em have a Soul-Sleepin’ Sunday.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

soup = nitroglycerine. “And to think of it being so obliging as to come in with a head like that while I was tearing around on my fruitless hunt for ‘soup’!” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

sour wine = vinegar, used as a disinfectant. “But for some reason I picked him up and carried him to my ’dobe shack, and laid him out, and washed his cut with sour wine.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

sourdough = an old hand, an old-timer adapted to the country. “She’ll be a regular sourdough before spring; won’t want to come out.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

soused to the guards = very drunk. “‘Soused to the guards,’ he sneered, ‘an’ me with ten years scairt offen my life fer fear I’d wake him.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

Southdown = a small British sheep raised chiefly for mutton. “There’s a lot of women as wouldn’t exactly regard me as a Merino, or a Southdown, either.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

sowegian = a mildly offensive term for an immigrant from Sweden or Norway. “Not a woman was in sight, except the lean Salvation girls, and they were singing in Swedish, as if Sowegians alone deserved, or needed, saving.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

spalpeen = a rascal. “There’ll be no way for thim spalpeens to fire us av the boord?” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Flowering yucca
spang = absolutely, entirely, directly. “But I believe in mentionin’ each one’s faults right spang out to him.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

Spanish bayonet = a tall yucca of the southwestern United States and Mexico having a woody stem and stiff sword-like pointed leaves and a large cluster of white flowers. “I goes wanderin’ out back of the Tub of Blood, where it’s lonesome, an’ camps down by a Spanish-bayonet.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

“Spanish Cavalier, The” = a popular song composed by William D. Hendrickson, 1871. “It was ‘The Spanish Cavalier’ he sang, with a very fine feeling, too, softly and richly.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

Spanish trot = a horse’s gait with exaggerated lifting of the front legs. “Well, he came up the pass shufflin’ along at a steady Spanish trot as was usual with him when not overly rushed.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

spavined = lame, maimed. “‘The critter,’ Carter said, ‘is blind, spavined, sweenied, and old enough to homestead.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

special = a train used for a particular purpose or occasion. “While he was asleep in Colonel Ricker’s special, a standard-gauge engine had crashed into the car and Wilson had had his right leg broken above the knee.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

spellbinder = a speaker, usually political, capable of holding an audience spellbound. “When I saw that a hundred an’ twenty-five million dollars wouldn’t buy two-thirds of a seventy-five cent pup, I understood what the spell-binders mean by a debased currency.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

spieler = gambler. “Gamblers, miners, suckers, marks, / Spieler, macers, bunco sharks.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

spiflicated = drunk. “He got spiflicated, built a roarin’ fire in the old stove—an’ there y’are, plain as daylight.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

spike maul = a hand tool used to drive railroad spikes. “At a flag station they robbed a section house, secured a red light and a spike maul, and determined to take one more fall out of the midnight express.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

sping = to strike. “The bullet tore through the slack o’ Dick’s vest an’ spinged into the wall behind him.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

spirit lamp = a lamp that burns alcohol or other liquid fuel. “Miss Deringham busied herself with a spirit lamp, and Alton watched her with a little glint in his eyes.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

spirky = spirited. “I seen the same girl, only with changes on her, for all she tried to be brave and spirky-like.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

spit on your money at new moon = a superstition, believed to bring good luck. “The mere mention of it brings better fortin’ than touchin’ a hunchback, or spittin’ on your money at new moon.” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

spit the fuse = make something happen; from mining, lighting the fuse of an explosive with the flame of a candle or match; . “‘Say, now!’ Tough Nut looked embarrassed. ‘You’re spittin’ the fuse all right.’” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

spite house = a building constructed or modified to irritate neighbors or other property owners. “Twas a ranch country, and fuller of spite-houses than New York City.” O. Henry, “The Hiding of Black Bill.”

split the wind = to leave quickly, run away. “They well know that, once started, the quarry leaps for the far horizon, vanishes from their view like the ‘Split-the-Wind’ of tradition.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

split trick = a worker’s shift divided into two discontinuous segments. “He is the ‘split-trick’ in the prosperous law firm of Gleed, Ware and Gleed, of Topeka.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

split-bottom = the seat of a chair, made from woven strips of cane, bark, or reed. “A mother can take an old split-bottomed rockin’ chair, and hold the youngest child and tell stories to the others while they play around her.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

spondulix = money. “Spend a little spondulix with the ole woman so’s she won’t kick you out.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.


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: Craig Johnson, Death Without Company


  1. snap a cap leads to bust a cap!? hum, very interesting.

  2. The Spanish Cavalier is a cute song. Something Gene Autry would have, should have, and wish that he had, recorded, and performed on film.