Saturday, July 26, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: U-V
(ulster – vug)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of mostly frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

ulster = heavy coat worn over ordinary clothing in cold weather. “He was tall, youthful, and stalwart of figure, dressed for a winter journey, in seal-skin cap and belted ulster.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

Sheep-lined ulsters, 1906
unchancy = unlucky, dangerous. “My unfortunate horse put his foot in that unchancy burrow and sent me flying.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

under the rose = in secret, privately, in a manner that forbids disclosure. “Tommy had started it, and he might conclude that it wasn’t worth following up—or at least inaugurate his private war under the rose, so to speak.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.

underhack = an earmark on an animal made by cutting up on the underside of the ear about one inch. “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.

underhand stoping = the working of an ore deposit from the top downwards. “He would be compelled to a little ‘underhand stoping in another level’; and a very low level it was that he contemplated.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

undress = informal, casual attire. “A child clad in leathern breeches, a miniature undress shirt, such as is affected by cow-boys, a great collar to boot, and a rough steeple-crowned form of straw sombrero, appeared.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

undying worm = a reference to biblical prophecies regarding eternal punishment of the wicked. “The evangelist, a stout man of bull-like build, proceeded to cut off yards of the ‘undying worm,’ and to measure bushels of the ‘fire that quencheth not.’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

unship = to remove an oar (or other object) from its fixed or regular position. “The boatman had unshipped his oars in time, but his small craft groaned under the pressure and threatened to collapse.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

up a stump = perplexed, in difficulties. “I felt considerable up the stump and so I told Death as how the young man was too proud to accept money straight out.” Pauline Wilson Worth, Death Valley Slim and Other Stories.

up sticks = to leave, change location. “Hotel-man said it was up-sticks now, and he meant to pay his just debts like an honest man, and that made four drinks.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

upas = a tree of southeast Asia known for its poisonous sap. “Sybil’s malevolent influence seemed to lie over everything that came near her, like the blight of the fabled upas.” John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman.

upper watch = the hours before midnight for riding guard on the herd. “So the low watch turned in to rest until midnight, when they were to relieve the upper watch, in whose hands the safety of the camp was placed till that time.” Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.

valley tan = a kind of whisky derived from wheat and potatoes, produced by Utah Mormons; anything homemade. “The ‘valley tan’ having been disposed of, Dan added:— ‘It was a boy!’” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

van = a camp store or supply chest maintained at a logging camp in the woods. “The foreman noted the victims of his strategy, issued them chlorodyne from the van, and kept his mouth shut.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

vara = a unit of length used in Spain and Latin America, and at times in Texas and California, equal to about 33 inches. “The fact is Sleight wants to buy the Pontiac out and out just as she stands with the two fifty vara lots she stands on.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

varsouvienne = a slow, graceful dance originating in Warsaw, Poland, combining elements of the waltz, mazurka, and polka, popular in 19th-century America, where it was danced to the tune Put Your Little Foot. “Afterward the old-time dances were called, such as Quadrille, Virginia Reel, Versouvienne, Heel and Toe Polka, Lancers, etc.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

Painting by Elihu Vedder
Vedder, Elihu = an American symbolist painter, illustrator, and poet (1836-1923), best known for his illustrations of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. “The whole dread picture brought before her one of Vedder’s pictures that hung in the shabby old library at home.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

vent brand = a brand that cancels out the brand of a previous owner. “D’you think I was a-goin’ to stand by and see a tin-horn proposition like that Noo York Simpson put a vent brand on her?” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

venting iron = a cattle branding iron used to cancel the brand of a previous owner and mark an animal as sold. “The Cross brand was a simple one, just one straight line crossin’ another; and it could be put on in about one second with a ventin’ iron.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

vibrate = to pass back and forth between. “Billy, who’s filed away a quart of fire-water in his interior by now, is vibratin’ between the Red Light an’ the dancehall.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

victoria = a light four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage with a collapsible hood, seats for two passengers, and an elevated driver's seat in front. “This turnout of Ellery’s, a handsome victoria drawn by four spirited horses, incongruously fine against the grim background of bare plains, was generally regarded as fit subject for good-humoured smiles by his neighbours.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

vinaigrette = a small ornamental container for holding aromatic vinegar, smelling salts, or spirits of ammonia to ward off evil smells. “She was sniffing away at her vinaigrette as she always did when she didn’t like things.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

vinegar and brown paper = a home remedy for cuts, bruises, boils, sprains, swollen joints, headache, and other complaints. “Not a great deal, if there ain’t plenty of vinegar and brown paper handy, and I seldom had such fancy fixings in camp.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

vinegar pie = a simple pie made of sugar and flour (with eggs and butter if available) and flavored with spices and vinegar. “We had expected to have some high jinks that day, an’ Kit had baked a lot o’ vinegar pies for dinner.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

Vitascope = one of the first motion-picture projectors, developed by Thomas Edison. “I could look out upon the streets and survey the throng of thickening sightseers as they moved up and down before me like the figures in a vitascope.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

vomito = The yellow fever in its worst form, when it is usually attended with black vomit. “The consul at Vera Cruz had written to Mr. Withers full particulars of his cousin’s death,—one of the first victims of the vómito,—and had sent these paper with the formal certificates of the Mexican officials.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

vug = a small cavity in a rock, usually lined with crystals of a different mineral composition than the enclosing rock. “The fragment in his hand was very beautiful, a soft rich shaded green flecked with red; the vugs, or little cells, looked as if lined with deep green velvet.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.


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: TBD


  1. Ron, Mumbai still has a few victorias, a throwback from the British Raj. These tongas, as they are known here, are four-wheeled one horse driven open carriages with cushioned seats facing each other. Animal rights activists have been fighting to get them banned because of the ill-treatment of the horses. They ply only in the original central business district of south Mumbai.

    1. Horse drawn carriages ply the streets around Central Park in NYC, too.

  2. Under the rose. Sub rosa. interesting.

  3. "Vinegar and brown paper" weren't used for headaches but as an improvised dressing for external cuts and bruise. See the nursery rhyme "Jack & Jill". Vinegar is still sometimes used as a disinfectant.

    1. By my research we are both right. Given that Jack breaks his crown, and the source (Marie Manning) refers to head injuries, I'm guessing there was a belief in the remedy's efficacy in head-related complaints.

  4. You would have a lot of jumping beans in a dance hall full of people doing the varsouvienne. Interesting group of words this time.