Friday, August 8, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: W
(whipstock – wurrah!)

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.”

whipstock = the handle of a whip. “John replied, fingering the whipstock of the doctor’s buggy.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

whiskey jack = the gray jay or Canada Jay, a North American bird found in coniferous forests. “A whisky jack flitted from branch to branch of the under brush—always just a step ahead.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

whit leather = a leather that has been treated with alum and/or salt. “He is as sound as a dollar, as tough as whit-leather, and as to his gentleness he speaks for himself.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

white alley = in the game of marbles, a white marble used for shooting. “I make a distinction between gunman and gunfighter, the former being practically a murderer, while the latter always gave a foe a chance for his White Alley; in short, a gunfighter was not a hired killer.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

Exposition, Chicago, 1893
White City, The = Chicago, which gained the nickname during the 1893 World’s Exposition, illuminated at night by the extensive use of a new invention, electric street lights. “Like everyone else who saw it at this time I was amazed at the grandeur of The White City and impatiently anxious to have all my friends and relations share in my enjoyment of it.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

white-eyes = Indian term for white people. “The Indians, being wicked, ungrateful, suspicious characters, doubted the promises of the White-eyes.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

white friendship = comradeship. “‘Do you believe in a white friendship?’ she asked at last. ‘For I do hope that such a bond may hold us always.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

white lawn tie = a white bow tie made of a fine sheer linen or cotton fabric of plain weave, for formal wear. “The aged citizen asleep in the chair outside was arrayed in somber black, with a turn-down collar and white lawn tie.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

white plague = tuberculosis. “The white plague had driven him from New York to this health-giving wilderness.” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.

WCTU logo, 1920
white ribbon = the badge (symbolizing purity) of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded 1873. “‘Hoity-toity!’ he sniffed with exaggerated concern. ‘Who th’ hell is this, now? One of them little white-ribbon boys, fresh from the East, I bet ye.” Hidden Water, Dane Coolidge.  

Whitehall = a popular rowboat manufactured in New York for ferrying goods to and from ships in the harbor. “The Indian helmsman drove the point of his paddle into the boatman’s chest and hurled him backward into the bottom of the Whitehall.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

whizzer = something or someone extraordinary. “I got no time for foolishness. And you can’t run no whizzer on me, Barela. Don’t you try it!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

whole kit and biling = everything, all of it; “biling” from “boiling,” the entire batch of soup or stew. “We-all have got ye now, an’ we’ll take keer of ye—The hull kit an’ bilin’ of us.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

whoop up = an establishment that illegally sold liquor to Indians. “A year or two in the Whoop Up country will season him and be the making of him.” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

wicket window = a small window or opening, often fitted with glass or a grating. “The cook who had come from the rear of the room, having seen the business through the wicket widow from his pantry, I suppose, cried out.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

wide-awake = vigilant, progressive, active. “Another Exciting Day in the Wide-Awake Town of Caldwell, Kansas.” Headline from Chicago Daily Tribune, 18 December 1881.

wigging = a reprimand, a severe rebuke. “Someone will get a wigging for this.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Wilcox, Ella Wheeler = American author and poet (1850-1919), in whose poem “Solitude” are the lines “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.” “It always sounded more like Ella Wheeler Wilcox, than in the Bible I mention.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Wind River Bible = a catalogue of one of the big Chicago department stores doing a large shipping business in the West. “I see him studying a Wind River Bible yesterday. Curious how in the spring a young man’s fancy gits to wandering on house furnishing.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

windjamming = fast talking, lying. “It will take more than wind-jamming to win next fall’s elections with this against them.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

windmill = emitter of wind. “Naw! Only some blasted holy windmill come for to save our souls.” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

windsucker = a horse that addictively sucks and gulps air, usually from boredom. “A steer that was run and roped and jerked around was called a ‘windsucker’.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

winker = the eye or eyelash. “The ol’ man looked at her a good long while, but she never blinked a winker.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

wiper = the most junior member of a railroad engine crew; cleaner of engine parts and engineer’s assistant. “The wiper on the window seat yelped like a kicked dog and went sickly green under his mask of grime.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

wire edge = the thin wire-like thread of metal sometimes formed on the edge of a tool (as a chisel or razor) in attempting to sharpen it. “For the next week thar ain’t no washin’ done whatever, while Benson Annie an’ Sal works the wire aige offen their visit.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

witch’s broom = a disease or deformity in a tree where a dense mass of shoots grows from a single point, looking like a broom or a bird’s nest. “Each morning, white frost gleamed on the scarlet buck-brush of the little tundras girded by stunted spruces that were capped with nest-like ‘witches’ brooms’.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

withe = a slender, flexible branch or twig, used for tying, binding, or basket making. “Saco rolled stones across the mouth of it and made a little cross of withes.” Mary Austin, Isidro.

wood-box assayer = an assayer who reports assayed mineral values based on guess work, the sample being thrown into a wood box rather than properly tested. “If he finds nothing in this material his reputation is established; if he finds that it carries values, it is demonstrated that he is a ‘wood-box’ assayer.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

woods loafer = an outdoors person, fond of and at home in the woods. “His gait was the bent-kneed amble of the confirmed woods-loafer.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

wool = to pull the hair of someone in anger. “All the pleasure of the chase now gave place to pity for the lifeless form which the dogs were wooling so savagely.” Marion Reid-Girardot, Steve of the Bar-G Ranch.

wool-clip = the total quantity of wool shorn in any place or season. “The town—it would be unkind to mention its name—had made merry the night before at the comprehensive invitation of a sheepman who had just disposed of his wool-clip.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

worm fence = a fence consisting of a zigzag of interlocking rails. “That Remorse pony arches his back like a hoop, sticks his nose between his knees, an’ gives way to sech a fit of real old worm-fence buckin’ as lands Slim Jim on his sombrero.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

worsted flowers = wool yarn knitted into the shapes of flowers. “And I suppose there is a hair wreath and perhaps some worsted flowers in deep frames on the wall.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

Worth gown
Worth, Charles Frederick = English-born Paris designer (1825-1895), known for his elegant gowns. “I’d wear Worth gowns and be lapped in luxury for the next ten years at the very least.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

wrapper = a woman's garment worn over nightwear or lingerie. “This falling off might have dated from a certain September morning when he had lost himself – for all time – to a girl with pain-pinched face and fever-brightened eyes who wore a blue wrapper.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

Wrecker, The = an adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, published in 1892. “Science Jottings, The Nineteenth Century would carry Bill, all equally, into some weird fairyland. ‘The Wrecker’ held him spell-bound too.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

wrong side of the blanket = born out of wedlock. “I was aiming to save her to a crown of glory,—a girl that’s thought to have been born on the wrong side of the blanket!” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

wurrah! = an expression of sorrow or anxiety. “Wurrah! Maybe he wasn’t failin’ roight.” James Hendryx, The Promise.


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: William S. Hart, Wagon Tracks (1919)


  1. I heard this one several times growing up, "Born on the wrong side of the blanket." Not talking about me, but some other poor soul in the town.