Saturday, June 21, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: S
(sponge gold – strabismus)

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.”

sponge gold = a noncohesive form of pure gold, used for dental restoration. “McTeague turned to her suddenly, his mallet in one hand, his pliers holding a pellet of sponge-gold in the other.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

spoon = a fishing lure. “Whether it’s with flies, spoons or minnows, castin’ or trollin’, or spearin’ or nettin’, Warry’s the expertest fish-catcher that ever waded the rapids.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

spoon = foolish, sentimental affection. “Stuart had a bad case of spoons.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

spoony = a fool or silly person. “Mr. Bruin fell dead; and the spoonies are handing down his hide to a numerous posterity.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

sporting gentleman = a gambler. “Our sporting gentlemen are also men of education; you may find gentlemen of such education on every one of our steam-packets.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

spotted fever = typhus or meningitis; any of several diseases characterized by fever and skin spots. “The cook contracted spotted fever and died.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

spotted pup = rice pudding. “‘Close shave that,’ panted Glenister, feeling his throat gingerly, ‘but I wouldn’t have missed it for spotted pup.’” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

spotter = a detective, an informer. “Know an engineering chap tramped the Sierras for a hundred miles dogged by a spotter from one of the railroads.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

spraddle = to sprawl, straggle, spread out, scatter. “The men who were to drive the herd ki-yied it out, and sprawled it en route, and away they went, herd and beeves, in a cloud of dust.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

spraddled out = in a confused state. “This yere domestic uprisin’ of Dave’s wife breaks on Wolfville as onexpected as a fifth ace in a poker deck; it leaves the camp all spraddled out.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

sprangled = spread out. “Mike grabbed Pat in his arms, chucked his sprangled fingers down his shirt-collar, nudged him in the ribs and pumbled him off toward the nearest saloon.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

spread misere = a card game in which the bidder plays with all his cards exposed. “‘I guess I’ll make it a spread misere,’ said Dangerous Dan McGrew.” Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon.

spread rail = rails spread apart by the weight of a train causing derailment. “I still has faith in the United States, but there’s individuals I don’t trust no more than a spread rail.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

spread-eagle = high-sounding, impressive, grandiloquent. “Thar’s nothin’ too rich for our blood, an’ these obsequies is goin’ to be spread-eagle, you bet!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

spring gun = a gun set with a trip wire. “I put spur to my pony so sharply that he leapt forward as if he had been ejected from a spring gun.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

spring wagon = a light wagon whose wheels were set individually on springs. “He had brought with him a light spring wagon and a couple of the best saddle horses beside, so that she could ride or drive at her pleasure.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

springboard =  a platform fixed to the side of a tree used by a lumberjack to stand on when working at some height from the ground. “He watched them pulling the great long falling-saw to and fro, to and fro, as they stood, high in air, on narrow springboards projecting from the tree.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

springhalt / stringhalt = a nerve disorder in horses, causing exaggerated flexing movements of the hind legs in walking. “Her front legs acted plumb funny—jerked up and down. I figgered it was the spring halt.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

spud = a chisel-like tool, for removing bark or digging into ice. “I don’t need no men, let alone a greener that don’t know a peavey from a bark spud.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

squander = to wander. “You recalls that English preacher sharp that comes squandering ’round the tavern yere for his health about a month ago?” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

squab = a young woman. “It was pre-eminently the night of nights for young folks—brownies and squabs.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

square-toed = old-fashioned, formal, prim. “When I got anything to say, I jes’ march up square-toed ’n say it—that’s me!” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

squaw bush = deciduous shrub of California with unpleasantly scented usually trifoliate leaves and edible fruit. “They stumbled upon the famished and demented Mr. Wickham, lying helpless in a squaw bush thicket.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

squaw hitch = a knot used in tying a pack on an animal. “That Blackfoot Injun (he was turned into To-Ko, the Human Snake) was a-throwin’ squaw-hitches with hisself.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

squaw winter = a spell of wintery weather preceding Indian summer. “Up in that country they have Indian summer and squaw winter, both in the fall.” Andy Adams, The Outlet.

squawfish = the pikeminnow; the largest member of the carp family, an edible fish found in the rivers of North America. “I heard Mr. George whisper to Uncle Jim that they were ‘squaw-fish,’ but if I can I’ll try to help you eat them.” Therese Broderick, The Brand.

squdgy = squat, pudgy. “It ran the length of the settlement, on a strip of shore under the sculptured terraces of the estuary, between a squdgy tidal creek and the sea-arm.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

squeak = to inform against, betray. “‘Looks like somebody squeaked,’ Smith said meaningly to Susie.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

squiffy = drunk. “‘What was eatin’ Scar Faced Charlie, anyway?’ ‘He’s squiffy.’” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

stack up = to present oneself (cf. piling up one’s chips at poker). “Occasionally some of us sorter tries to stack up for Jim an’ figger out where he stands with the game.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

stager = a horse used to pulling a stagecoach. “The girl’s horse was a stager, which had been selected because he was highly educated concerning badger-holes and rocky hillsides.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

stager = a veteran, an experienced person, someone who has given long service. “Takes an old stager who never had your dude Service suits on his back to know the secrets of these hills, Miss Elanor.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

stagger = an effort, try, attempt. “You made a blamed good stagger for one who makes no pretense.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

stagger juice = spirits. “I got him to sing it three times, him being that full of song and stagger-juice.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

stalled ox = reference to Proverbs 15:17; “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.” “The small square rooms are distinctly pretty. But when I look at them seeingly I think of the proverb about the dinner of stalled ox.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

stand off = to evade a question or a creditor. “She looked at him blankly, her hard face set. ‘You don’t need stand me off,’ he cried.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

stand up = to hold up (at gunpoint). “If they ever gets a motion to stand up the stage, they’s shore due to be in this canyon.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Standard Sleeper = a train with sleeping berths. “He had all kinds of fool jiggers fer his business, and one of them toot surreys that’s got ingine haidlights and two seats all stuffed with goose feathers and covered with leather—reg’lar Standard Sleeper.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

Stanhope phaeton
stanhope = a light open one-seated carriage with two or four wheels, first made for English inventor Charles Stanhope (1753-1816). “The carriage house remained, with the great family carriage, and master’s stanhope.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

starting eyes = eyes that bulge so as to appear to burst out of their sockets. “Bill, he was troubled some with startin’ eyes.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

steam beer = a highly effervescent, traditional-style ale that was brewed in the goldfields of California. “I got so blame disgusted drinkin’ steam beer through a straw that if anyone would ’a’ dared me I’d ’a’ signed the pledge.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

Calliope, 1874
steam piano = calliope. “Too chivalrous to surprise and capture a town by silent sortie, he paused at the nearest corner and emitted his slogan—that fearful, brassy yell, so reminiscent of the steam piano.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

stearine = a colorless, odorless, tasteless ester of glycerol and stearic acid found in most animal and vegetable fats and used in the manufacture of soaps, candles, metal polishes, and adhesives. “Mr. Henderson communing with himself in the light of the stearine candle.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

stem-winder = excellent, first-rate. “A stem-winder, as you might say; always right there, up an’ comin’ when you wanted him, the best bronco breaker in Wyoming.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

stepper = a horse with a brisk, attractive walking gait. “There ain’t never be’n no sech stepper in this here deestrict, leavin’ out Colonel.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

C.H. Gifford, A Stern Chase, 1897
stern chase = a chase in which the pursuing vessel follows directly in the wake of the vessel pursued. “At first all is one mad rush until it is certain that the rabbit is a veteran who understands well the maxim that ‘a stern-chase is a long chase’ all over the world.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

sternway = movement in reverse. “Once more Mr. Ackerman was taken flat aback. Figuratively speaking, he even gathered sternway.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

stick = a shot of spirits added to a nonalcoholic beverage. “Jack had made lemonade, with a ‘stick,’ a barrelful each time, and had offered it as his donation.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

“Stick to Your Mother, Tom” = a popular sentimental song, c1885, by Harry Birch. “And then he run the gamut up to ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,’ / And played ‘Stick to Your Mother, Tom,’ until he made us cry.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner. 

stifle = of a horse, the joint at the junction of the hind leg and the body. “He was last seen on or about May 5th, at Clay Flat, in the Painted Desert, with a flea-bitten grey gelding branded x on the near stifle.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

stirrup cup = a last drink before leaving. “They would ordinarily have found some of the outfit, perhaps have played stud poker an hour or two, taken a stirrup cup and departed.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.

stock watering = a form of securities fraud in which stock is sold at a much-inflated value. “They learned of stock-watering, of bond-issues. It was all strange and new, and hard to understand.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

stocking = a store of money. “Peter must have a long stocking if he would pay for all.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

storm center = a cause of trouble or disturbance. “Black Kettle seems to be getting to be a storm-centre.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

strabismus = a defect of vision in which one eye cannot focus with the other on an object because of imbalance of the eye muscles; a squint. “He was not an imposing personage, this gentleman, being afflicted with an extreme case of strabismus.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.


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. I've fished with spoons. I learned the word strabismus in college.

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