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.”
straddlebug = tripod commonly constructed of three planks of wood with a settler’s name attached to notify others that a plot of land was being claimed by a homesteader. “And so at last they came to the land of ‘the straddle-bug’—the squatters’ watch dog—three boards nailed together (like a stack of army muskets) to make a claim.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.
straddling = in poker, a bet made before cards are dealt. “Let us have a regulation ‘ante.’ No ‘straddling.”’ Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
straggle = to wander off, stray. “It’s a day straggled from heaven, ain’t it?” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.
strangler = killer. “I don’t want no strangler work on this range, nor shootin’—unless deputy sheriffs do the shootin’.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.
strapper = a big, strong person; a notably hard worker. “Man alive, jes’ look at that air gal’s shape! Ain’t she a strapper?” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.
stravaging = wandering aimlessly. “A old fat lady like me—a-holdin’ out a danglin’ noose at arm’s len’th, waitin’ fer them snortin’, stravagin’ hosses to come up an’ kindly run their heads through it.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.
straw boss = a ranch foreman who works under the superintendent; any boss who is second dog to the top boss. “I wonder what the boys of the Lazy J would think if they knowed that a guy was tryin’ to make a gunfighter out of their old straw boss.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.
strawboard = a coarse yellow cardboard made of straw pulp; used in hardcover bookbinding. “Mr. Demilt had written to his firm explaining the advantages of starting a straw-board factory in Fairfield.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.
stray man = a rider assigned to visit ranges or roundups outside the outfit’s usual territory and bring back stray cattle. “I heard something about some trouble between Dave Leviatt an’ the new stray-man.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.
stretch = to hang, kill. “I challenges any gent to put his tongue to an event where a vig’lance committee stretches a party who ain’t in need tharof.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
striker = a private who acts as a voluntary paid servant to a commissioned officer. “He went in and told his striker to get Sergeant Keyser.” Owen Wister, Red Men and White.
strikes, the = hysteria. “I’ve seen a man sit with his feet up on the kitchen stove readin’ a newspaper an’ never turnin’ a hair, while his wife was screamin’ herself black in the face with the strikes in the next room.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.
string = to fool or deceive someone over a period of time; to play tricks on a tenderfoot. “She’s told me that she’s goin’ to make him a character in the book she’s writing. Likely she’s stringing him.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.
string-piece = a long, usually horizontal piece of timber for strengthening, connecting, or supporting a framework of a bridge, pier, or other structure. “He sat on the string-piece of the empty pier next the vessel.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.
stringer = a mineral veinlet or filament, usually one of a number, occurring in a discontinuous pattern in host rock. “If they did not agree that the vein on the which he had been working, containing a shoot of chalcopyrite six feet wide, and of the highest grade, was the original vein, and the Primo-Apex a mere stringer, or at most a fork from his, he would let the suit go by default.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.
Studebaker = horse-drawn freight wagon developed by brothers Henry and Clement Studebaker, who started business in South Bend, Indiana, in the 1850s. “And lined up to the right of the tent were twenty big, long-bodied Studebaker wagons, each with four barrels of water.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.
Strip, the = the Oklahoma Panhandle; part of the Texas Republic until 1850 and known officially as Public Land Strip (or Cherokee Strip) until attached to Oklahoma Territory in 1890. “The cattle were in charge of Ike Inks as foreman, and had been sold for delivery somewhere in the Strip.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.
stuff = to tease, tell lies, fool, hoax. “It’s a likely story. The boss was stuffing you, or some one stuffed the boss.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.
stumpage = standing timber. “And of course you know she’s mortgaged to her neck,—the East Belt and all the northeast stumpage.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.
stoop = a fool, idiot. “He had stepped down from his scarlet-coated dignity, from the place of guardian and guide to civilization, into the idleness of a tavern stoop.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.
stull = in mining, a timber platform for miners while working or to protect them from falling debris. “When she reached the fault drift she thrust the long point of a candlestick into a stull before turning the corner.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.
stump = to make a dare. “You think you are witty, Con, but you are only aggravating, sort of stumping me, as Tom used to, and I would break my neck rather than take a stump.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.
stumper = a tree that will drop straight into water when felled. “For ‘stumpers’ are the most profitable trees that hand-loggers can hope to get; they need so little time and work.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.
Sucker = an Illinoisan; derived from a 19th-century nickname for Illinois, “The Sucker State”; origin debated. “The Hoosiers of Indiana, and the Suckers of Illinois, the Puches of Missouri.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.
sun picture = a photograph. “He had not been wise enough to lug a camera into the country, but none the less, by a yet subtler process, a sun-picture had been recorded somewhere on his cerebral tissues.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.
surcingle = a wide strap that runs over the back and under the belly of a horse, used to keep a blanket or other equipment in place. “Whyfor should I care what y’u say? I guess this outfit ain’t got no surcingle on me.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.
surah = a soft twilled silk fabric used for dressmaking, ties, and furnishings. “McTeague wore a black surah negligé shirt without a cravat.” Frank Norris, McTeague.
sure pop = a certainty. “Kind of coincident’l like, unless they came together on purpose. Then it’s sure pop.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.
surround = a method of hunting wild animals by driving them into a trap. “Did you make that surround you was going to make, Rool?” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.
surtout = a man’s overcoat in the style of a frock coat. “It’s that youthful party in the black surtoot who comes pesterin’ me a moment ago about the West bein’, as he says, a roode an’ irreligious outfit.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
sutler = a civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters. “He himself was not down with his scouts in the ill-smelling camp across the creek, but had a room at the sutler’s store, a good three-quarters of a mile from the corrals.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.
suttingly = certainly. “What between men and beasts, we suttingly have been followed up some this trip, and I’m getting’ tired of it.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.
swab = an unpleasant person. “Can’t you see what a swab he is, Laura?” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.
swallow fork = an earmark on an animal made by a triangular cut removing the tip of the ear. “I’m workin’ a bunch of cattle; Cross-K is the brand; y’ear-marks a swallow-fork in the left, with the right y’ear onderhacked.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
swamper = a logging worker who chops limbs and brush from felled trees. “We came to where the ‘swampers’ were at work chopping limbs and brush, preparing the cut logs for hauling.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.
swart = dark colored, swarthy. “Fleecy thunder-heads were slowly heaving up from behind the swart spruce forest.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.
sweat cloth = a cloth layout used for dice games by early American gamblers. “Many a college education was wasted—or utilized, if you please—on the dealer’s side of a ‘sweat-cloth’ in some of those dens.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.
sweenied = a condition of horses; suffering from atrophy of the shoulder muscles. “‘The critter,’ Carter said, ‘is blind, spavined, sweenied, and old enough to homestead.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.
sweep = a long heavy oar used to row a barge or other vessel. “For propulsion it possessed long sweeps; but since it had merely to keep pace with the logs and the logs moved no faster than the current, these were used only for guidance.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.
sweep = an unpleasant person. “I ain’t saying that I love you, because I’m a sweep and it’s just likely I don’t know passion from love.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.
sweeper = an uprooted tree that has fallen into a stream, capable of sweeping men off a raft or log or causing a jam. “The branches of a gigantic, storm-blasted pine, whose earth-laded butt dragged heavily along the bottom of the river, became firmly entangled in the low-hanging limbs of a sweeper.” James Hendryx, The Promise.
swing man = hand brake operator. “This little army of workers, tramping steadily in one direction, met and mingled with other toilers of a different description—conductors and ‘swing men’ of the cable company going on duty.” Frank Norris, McTeague.
swipe = poor quality beer; a drink consumed in a single gulp. “Don’t pour no more of More’s swipes into these fellers’ sinks, or they’ll get logged right up to their back teeth till they don’t know Tuesday from rye whiskey.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.
switch target = a railway indicator that identifies to a train operator which track a train is intended to take when it reaches a switch. “There was not a house at that station; only a solitary switch target at either end of a long and lonely side-track.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.
switchel = a drink made of water mixed with vinegar, often seasoned with vinegar and sweetened with molasses, honey, sugar, brown sugar, or maple syrup; a traditional drink served to farmers at haying time, hence the nickname haymaker’s punch. “I drove the cows to pasture, and carried ‘switchel’ to the men in the hay-fields by means of a jug hung in the middle of a long stick.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.
sword swallower = one who eats from his knife. ““‘Anyway,’ she declared encouragingly. ‘You don’t eat with your knife.’ Smith beamed. ‘Did you notice that?’ ‘Naturally, in a land of sword-swallowers, I would.’” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.
Sydney Carton = a central character in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. “She begged me to change my ways, and I promised that for her sake I would. Quite romantic, eh? A touch of Sydney Carton—eh?” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.
syllabub = a drink made of milk mixed with wine, cider, or rum, sweetened, spiced, and served warm (also sillabub). “Mrs. Crouch, with Mrs. Wyatt, and the Mrs. Parsons, was in the kitchen, which was set well back in the yard, frying chicken, boiling the candy, and setting sillabubs to cool, in the torch-lit back-yard.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.
syringa = a genus of about 20-25 species of flowering woody plants in the olive family, native to woodland and scrub, including lilacs. “Maidenhair unfolded pale canopies over the shallow boxes on the edge of the balcony, where were planted sweet peas, and a syringa, supported by a pillar.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.
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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: Book vs. TV, Craig Johnson’s Longmire