Saturday, August 30, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: addenda
(drop one’s watermelon – minié ball)

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.” (The following are additions, turned up since these weekly postings began a year ago.)

drop one’s watermelon = to make a serious mistake. “That’s where Coyote makes the mistake of his c’reer; that’s where he drops his watermelon!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Nights.

Edward Eggleston
Eggleston, Edward = American author and historian (1837-1902), best known for novels set in Indiana. “This serial (which involved my sister and myself in many a spat as to who should read it first) was The Hoosier Schoolmaster, by Edward Eggleston, and a perfectly successful attempt to interest western readers in a story of the middle border.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

fan = to drive away or scatter like chaff. “There was a kind of a Death March into the dining-room from which Mrs. Terriberry had unceremoniously ‘fanned’ the regular boarders.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

fice-dog = a Feist dog, used for hunting, believed to be a cross between Native American dogs and dogs brought by the colonists. “While grub’s cookin’ and Crawfish an’ me’s pow-wowin’, a little old dog Crawfish has—one of them no-account fice-dogs—comes up an’ makes a small uprisin’ to one side.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

forty drops = a reference to alcohol, maybe also related to laudanum and opium; there was a popular rag tune called “Forty Drops” from the 1890s (40 drops = ½ teaspoon). “The committee, whose sympathies is all with this yere party who’s to hang, calls down the gent a heap who’s prayin’, gives the other his forty drops, an’ cinches him up some free of the ground.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wofville.

fosse = a long narrow trench or excavation, especially in a fortification. “Miss Nellie reached the first mining extension of Indian Spring, which surrounded it like a fosse.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

freeze-out = game of poker, played until one player has won all the stakes. “‘Which he’s a bad-mannered miscreent,’ returns Cherokee, ‘who if asked to set into a game of freeze-out for two dollars worth of brains a corner couldn’t even meet the ante.’” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Folks.

frieze = heavy, coarse woolen cloth with a nap, usually on one side only. “Do you know any one who wears a frieze coat like that?” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

Galloway = a Scottish breed of beef cattle having a coat of curly, black hair. “Again it was a black steer that was released—a hornless galloway, as wild as a native buffalo and as fleet as an ordinary horse.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, The Homesteaders.

Ganymede = cup bearer to Zeus; barkeeper. “I hereby apprises our honored barkeep that the camp’s honin’ to yoonite in a libation to your health. Jack,’ concloodes Cherokee, motionin’ to Black Jack, ‘as the Ganymede of the establishment the rest remains with you.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Folks.

granny knot = a square knot with the ends crossed the wrong way and therefore liable to slip or jam.” “It does look mighty queer that the painter should slip. Jack Cranch ain’t the man to tie a granny knot.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

Gunpowder tea = a form of green Chinese tea in which each leaf has been rolled into a small round pellet, resembling grains of black powder. “I tell Council as I git older I don’t seem to enjoy the Young Hyson n’r Gunpowder. I want the reel green tea, jest as it comes off’n the vines.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

hairpin = a fool, a simpleton. “I’m my own boss, as I say, and I’m goin’ to stay my own boss if I have to live on crackers an’ wheat coffee to do it; that’s the kind of hair-pin I am.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

Healey’s Bitters = a patent medicine. “These advertising bulletins could be seen in heaps on the counter at the drug store especially in the spring months when ‘Healey’s Bitters’ and ‘Allen’s Cherry Pectoral’ were most needed to ‘purify the blood.’” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

hearse driver = the case-keeper for a faro dealer. “When a card is removed from the faro box by the dealer, the ‘hearse-driver moves a button opposite a corresponding card on his little machine, in order that the players, at a glance, may tell what spots have been played or are still in the box.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

Telephone operator, c1911
hello girl = a female telephone operator. “The entire meal was enlivened by her efforts, in the person of a hello girl, to expurgate his language, and she ended by trying to get him to swear—politely.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.
hewgag = toy musical instrument, like a kazoo. “So Dave twists away for five minutes an’ me a-timin’ of him, and then leans the hewgag up ag’in a ’doby an’ starts in to make a round-up. Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

High-Five = an American trick-taking card game derived from Pitch, also known as Double Pedro or Cinch. “Beside the stove Scully’s son Johnnie was playing High-Five with an old farmer who had whiskers both gray and sandy.” Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel.

hit the high places = to ride at top speed. “As soon as ever I comes to an’ can scramble into that Texas saddle ag’in, me and Jim hits the high places in the scenery, in a fervid way, an’ yere we-all be!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Nights.

Hobble skirt, c1911
hobble skirt = a close-fitting skirt so narrow at or near the hem as to impede walking. “The change which a marcelled pompadour, kimona sleeves, a peach-basket hat, and a hobble skirt wrought in the appearance of Mrs. Andy P. Symes, nee nee Kunkel, was a source of amazement to Crowheart.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

hock card = the last card in the box in a game of faro (figuratively, an end or conclusion). “‘Whatever’s the hock kyard to all this?’ he says to Jack Moore.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

hold-up = an outlaw. “When the stage gets along an hour later, this Slim Jim’s made himse’f a mask with a handkerchief, an’ is a full-fledged hold-up which any express company could be proud to down.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

hurdy-gurdy = a dance hall. “Once, so they tells the story, Curly Bill rounds up this Slim Jim in a Red Dog hurdy-gurdy an’ concloods to have some entertainment with him.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Man with jabot
jabot = a frill on the front of a man’s shirt or woman’s bodice (from French). “Mrs. ‘Hank’ Terriberry, whose hair looked like a pair of angora ‘chaps’ in a high wind, returning from her third trip to the dish-pan, burst into tears at the man’s depravity and inadvertently wiped her streaming eyes on the end of her long lace jabot instead of her handkerchief.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

Krag = a repeating bolt action rifle designed by Norwegians Ole Herman Johannes Krag and Erik Jørgenen in the late 19th century. “The wagons were blue with soldiers, the early golden rays slanting from their Krags.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

Lady Baltimore cake = a white cake described in Owen Wister’s novel Lady Baltimore (1909) as “all soft and it’s in layers and it has nuts.” “The whites of sixteen aigs I put in this Lady Baltimore cake, and it’s light as a feather.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

Scene from The Lady of Lyons, 1902
Lady of Lyons, The = a popular romantic melodrama by English dramatist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873); first performed in 1838. “Mrs. Tutts showed her public spirit by rehearsing Crowheart’s talented amateurs in an emergency performance of the ‘Lady of Lyons’ for the strangers evening entertainment.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

Lambroso, Cesare = an Italian criminologist (1835-1909), who held that a criminal could be identified by physical defects. “His wife looks like a horse with a straw bonnet on and he ought to be jailed on sight if there’s anything to Lombroso’s theories.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

Lascar = a sailor from India or Southeast Asia. “The Lascar seaman that was here the other day has been wanting to see you, sir.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

Lateen rigging
lateen = a triangular sail on a long yard at an angle of 45° to the mast. “Although at times a mere blank speck on the grey waste of foam, a closer scrutiny showed it to be one of those lateen-rigged Italian fishing-boats that so often flecked the distant bay.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

leather and prunella = a matter of complete indifference (prunella, a strong silk or worsted fabric used for the gowns of graduates, members of the clergy, and barristers). “Most of us entered chapel like rabbits sneaking down a turnip patch, but Arthur and John and Walter loitered in with the easy and assured manner of Senators or Generals—so much depends upon leather and prunella.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

make hair bridles in Yuma = to do time in the territorial prison in Yuma, Arizona. “Nice boy, that, but hot-headed as a goat. He’ll be making hair bridles down in Yuma some day, I reckon.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.

Ward McAllister
McAllister, Ward = the self-appointed arbiter (1827–1895) of New York high society, whose list of “Four Hundred” named the city’s most socially elite. “They have an etiquette as binding as McAllister’s Four Hundred, but what it is I don’t know.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

mestizo/a = a person of mixed race, especially the offspring of a Spaniard and an American Indian. “It is the Americano, Señor Cranch, and his adopted daughter, the mestiza Juanita, seeking your reverence, methinks.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

minié ball = a rifle bullet with a conical head used in muzzle-loading firearms. “Poor Billy! A ‘minie’ ball fell into his breast one day, fell wailing like a cat, and tore a great ragged hole in his heart.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

Next: Addenda (mukluks – too dead to skin)


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. Never heard of the Watermelon one. Intersting. Gunpowder tea I have heard.

  2. Are you going to compile all these glossary articles into a book? Because if so, I'm first in line to get one.