Saturday, August 2, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: W
(waddy – whipsaw)

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.”

waddy = a cowboy; also, a rustler. “A genuine rustler was called a ‘waddy,’ a name difficult to trace to its origin.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

wady = dry riverbed. “I worked in the other direction by spells till I got to a little wady.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

walk Spanish = to follow an unwelcome order. “He’d meet your representative like a gentleman, and step around lively and walk Spanish for you, if you so much as winked.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

walk-a-heap = Indian term for a foot soldier. “The army is goin’ to come up agin’ us—pony soldiers, and walk-a-heaps, and twice guns, to take our water-holes.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

walk-down = a method of catching wild horses by following them until they are exhausted. “They were so worn and tired they marched up to and through the corral gate like a bunch of wild horses after a ‘nine-day walk-down.’” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

walking beam = on a steam engine, a lever that oscillates on a pivot and transmits power to the crankshaft. “When ‘Walkingbars’ got down to earnest pitching it seemed—and usually proved—as hard to stop him as to stay the mighty swing of a side-wheeler’s walking-beam.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

walking boss = the superintendent of two or more logging camps. “He and Wright held council with McKenna, Tobin, Deever, and MacNutt, the former being Kent’s walking boss and the last three his foremen.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

Wall tent
wall tent = a canvas tent with four vertical walls. “The Britons has got up a wall tent an’ is shorely havin’ a high an’ lavish time.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

wambling = wobbling, rolling. “Whenever he spoke, Dan had a habit of wambling and grinning, thereby disclosing his tobacco-colored teeth, and quivering like a creature in convulsions.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

wamus = cardigan sweater. “‘Mebby he’s got papers in his wamus,’ says Boggs, ‘which onfolds concernin’ him. Go through him, Texas, anyhow.’” Wolfville Days, Alfred Henry Lewis.

wanegan = a long, heavy, flat-bottomed scow. “Last of all came the ‘wanegan,’ also known as the ‘sweep.’” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

wapato = an aquatic plant producing edible tubers used as food by North American Indians. “Across the open he saw his wife at the camp-fire, preparing her dish of wapato.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

wapiti = Indian word for elk. “There were survey maps, tassels of oats, and a great Wapiti head upon the wall.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

ward bummer = political trickster; ward heeler. “When the blatant noises in Congress and conventions and the ward bummers in the beer halls quit war talk, the late unpleasantness will be forgotten.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

warped up = disturbed, bent out of shape. “He had a plumb ornery fighting look in them deep-set eyes of his, and blame me if I didn’t someway feel sorry for him,—he’s that warped up.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

washee-washee = derogatory term for a Chinese person. “I reckon I was a public benefactor when I sheared that washee-washee, and I deserve the pig tail as a decoration for my services.” Florence Finch Kelly, With Hoops of Steel.

wash-up = the washing of a collected quantity of ore. “Goin’ out? Not this year, I guess. Wash-up’s comin’.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

watch charm = a small ornament designed to dangle from a watch chain. “She reached into the bosom of her dress an’ fished out a real revolver, about the size of a watch-charm.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

water bench = a cabinet with a lower portion closed with doors for milk pails, an open shelf for water pails, and an upper section with shallow drawers. “I don’t know how it got over us, but there it was with th’ safe an’ water-bench a holdin’ th’ timbers off’n us.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

Waterbury watches
water haul = a fruitless effort. “Another such water haul would bring about the leader’s impeachment.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

Waterbury watch = an inexpensive pocket watch produced 1880s-1890s by the Waterbury Watch Company in Connecticut; often given free with purchase of cheaply made clothing and other products, thus associated with shoddy workmanship. “Ye can wind up me affairs and welcome if ye’ll take the time. They’re just the Waterbury watch inside me pocket.” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

waterfall = a chignon; a hairstyle with hair pinned into a knot at the nape of the neck; also a wave of hair falling down the neck. “My mother was making a company for me, putting up my waterfall and curling my beau-catchers.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Chignon, c1898
water-gap = the location on a stream that is crossed by a fence, typically requiring repair after flooding. “There was a water-gap to be repaired and they headed for the Salt Fork of the Brazos.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

wattle = a mark of ownership made on the neck or the jaw of an animal by pinching up a quantity of skin and cutting it down but not entirely off, leaving a hanging flap of skin. “He’s plumb shore to dewlap and wattle his fool self till you could spot him in airy herd o’ humans as fer as you could see him.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

Watts, Happy Warrior, 1884
Watts, George Frederick = popular English Victorian painter and sculptor (1817-1904). “Here is the Watts’ ‘Happy Warrior,’ and Dick—listen—I didn’t mean it as a token when I offered to send it up.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

wean = a young child. “She opened her arms to receive a violet-eyed wean brought in by a young woman of perhaps twenty.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

wear the willow = mourn the loss of a lover. “It seems to me it’s time for you to wear the willow and trot off down the hill.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

Weary Willy (far right), 1898
Weary Willy = tramp character created by British cartoonist Tom Browne (1870-1910). “I'm not a Weary Willie. I prefer to earn my dole first.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

webfeet / webfooters = residents of Oregon and the rainy Pacific Northwest. “At last I’ve fetched up with the ‘Webfeet’ way down here on old Puget Sound.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

well-shooter = detonator of explosives in oil wells to start or renew a flow of oil. “A three-gallon can of nitro-glycerine which he let slip out of his hands one day, while giving a well-shooter a hand, had removed him at once from the worries and ambitions of his kind.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

wet = to drink to, toast. “Not till we wet your wedding.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

wet blanket branding = to manipulate a brand by applying “the hot iron through a piece of wet blanket” to give a new brand “the appearance of age.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Coming of the Law.

whack up = to share or divide equally. “Let’s go coax the little Bradley girl and one other to go down to Denver for a lark. I’ll be generous and whack up with you.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

whacker = a shortened form of bullwhacker. “I told them I’d be back with the whackers if I didn’t find you.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

whang = a thong or whip of hide or leather. “He whipped out the aneroid, dangling at the end of its whang-leather.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

What Katy Did = a children’s book by Susan Coolidge, published 1872. “I have read some girl-books, a few years ago—‘Hildegarde Grahame,’ and ‘What Katy Did,’ and all.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

wheelers = in freighting and stagecoaches, the horses or mules nearest the wheels and needing to be the strongest. “‘Them mules, Tom an’ Jerry, is obtained by me orig’nal in Vegas. They’re the wheelers of a eight-mule team.’” Wolfville Nights, Alfred Henry Lewis.

wheeze = a trick or dodge frequently used. “Throwing the blame of poor meals upon the cook is an old wheeze of the mean boss.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

whiffet = a small, young, or unimportant person. “Think I am scart of that little curly-headed whiffet? Not me!” John G. Neihardt, Life’s Lure.

Two men with whipsaw, c1896
whipsaw = a saw with a narrow blade and a handle at both ends, used typically by two people. “Late in October there was finished for him on the outer edge of the town, near the bank of a little hill-born stream, a roomy log-house, mud-chinked, with a water-tight roof of spruce shakes and a floor of whipsawed plank.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.


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: Bret Harte, Frontier Stories (1887)


  1. Wady is a cool word. I used to use it in writing but seemed to have forgotten it. Thanks for the reminder. Walk a heaps. I remember that from some western or another. thought it was a cool term, and accurate.

    1. Curious the use of "heap" in Indian lingo. I don't know how it came into common use.

  2. Most of these are unfamiliar to me, except for waddy, whipsaw, whang. Thanks for defining 'em.

  3. The word waddy still is in use today, though I seldom come across it except among hardcore westerners and cowboy poets.

  4. One of my best efforts ever as I was familiar with seven of these. Helped a farmer fix a water gap three times as a teenager. When he first used the term I thought we were going to fix a dam.

    1. Seven is good. Growing up on the flat farmland of central Nebraska, I did not know of term water gap until I came across it in reading.

  5. "Whipsaw," as in a saw used by lumbermen, is the only word I'm familiar with. Wapiti sounds vaguely familiar in a different context but I could be wrong.