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 weekly postings began a year ago.)
mukluks = a high, soft boot worn in the American Arctic and traditionally made from sealskin. “He moved lightly, his footing made doubly secure by reason of his soft-soled mukluks.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.
needle-tell = a system for marking a deck of cards with invisible needles, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers, which prick “the dealer’s thumb, signaling the presence of certain cards.”
Nimrod = a descendant of Noah and mighty hunter. “Aunt Tilda was wont on those gallant occasions to thank the Professor, say he was a perfect Nimrod, and close the incident by requesting him, instead of laying his trophy at her feet, to take it to the kitchen and deliver it into the hands of the Mexican cook.” Alfred Henry Lewis, The Throwback.
Old Jordan = liquor of no particular quality. “I says this since, from the quantity of Old Jordan you’ve been mowin’ away, I more than half infers that you nourishes designs upon the place.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Faro Nell and Her Friends.
parlor-broke = to be comfortable in polite company. “Even Rufus Hardy, the parlor-broke friend and lover, slipped away before any of them were stirring and rode far up along the river.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.
pippin = a perfect example. “There’s a girl for you! Say! What ’d we do without her, eh? She’s a pippin!” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.
piroot = to meander, wander, travel. “This buck, a Navajo, I takes it, from his feathers, has been pirootin’ about for a day or two.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.
pork pie = a small round hat with a narrow curled-up brim worn by women in the mid-19th century, usually with a ribbon or hatband where the crown joined the brim, with a small feather or two attached to a bow on one side; made of various materials (straw, felt, cotton canvas covered in silk). “The hat thus procured, a few days later, became, by the aid of a silk handkerchief and a bluejay’s feather, a fascinating ‘pork pie.’” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.
pot-valor = courage or bravery as the result of being drunk. “During these moments he did not forget to wear his air of advanced pot-valor.” Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel.”
pung = a sleigh with a boxlike body drawn by a single horse; a toboggan. “Mother and the children brought up the rear in a ‘pung’ drawn by old Josh, a flea-bit gray.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.
ranikaboo = nonsense; prank. “Enright don’t aim to allow Wolfsville’s good repoote to bog down to any sech extent, none whatever; an’ so stands in to protect both the camp an’ pore Boggs himse’f from Boggs’ weird an’ ranikaboo idees.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.
rambo = a variety of eating or cooking apple which ripens late in autumn and has a yellowish skin streaked with red. “His eyes were clear and guileless—like skies over green wheat fields—and his cheeks suggested Rambo apples, slowly tinting in the sun.” John G. Neihardt, Life’s Lure.
ring of Gyges = a mythical ring giving its bearer the power of invisibility. “The solitude, the glimpses from the window of great distances full of vague possibilities, made the abused ring potent as that of Gyges.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.
romance = to saunter, wander. “We’re white men, an’ I’m apt to come romancin’ up here with one of these an’ bust you so you won’t hold together durin’ the ceremonies.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.
ruche = a frill or pleat of fabric as decoration on a garment (also rooshing). “By rights, Harpe, you ought to cut out these piqué vests and manly shirt bosoms and take to ruches and frills and ruffles.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.
salt-hoss = horsemeat preserved in salt. “I takes grub with Crawfish that same day; good chuck, too; mainly sheep-meat, salt-hoss, an’ bakin’-powder biscuit.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
sand-tell = a system for marking a deck of cards, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers, “certain ones of which had been roughened or sand-papered slightly, so that, by pressing more heavily on the top or exposed card, the one beneath would stick to its neighbor above, and enable him to deal two with one motion if the occasion demanded.”
scaly = poor, shabby, despicable. “‘No. But they say he’s makin’ a terrible lot o’ money,’ the old man said in a hushed voice. ‘But the way he makes it is awful scaly.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.
sandsoap = a heavy-duty gritty soap. “ I never touch the outside of a pot—and I scour them with sandsoap.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.
scolding locks = locks of hair usually curled that do not stay in place. “Mrs. Jackson, who had been peering through the foliage of a potted geranium on the window-sill, was pinning frantically at her scolding locks.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.
saw wood = to get on with one’s work. “He ‘sawed wood’ with a rapidity and uninterruptedness which gave alarm. He had the air of coaling up for a long voyage.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.
scrag = to hang (on a gallows); throttle, choke. “You Indians better go home. What did you want to get scragged for?” Stephen Crane, “The Five White Mice.”
scum = to move rapidly. “The ’Frisco Kid obeyed the voice of his partner in a manner that was blind but absolute and they scummed Benson on past the door.” Stephen Crane, “The Five White Mice.”
|Robinson Crusoe, Friday|
sembicuacua = a frenzied dance, which according to a writer for The Century (1895), “left much to the invention of the performers, and very little to the imagination of the spectator.” “She whisked the shawl from her shoulders, held it up like a scarf, and made one or two steps of the sembicuacua.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.
seven-up = card game for 2 or 3 players or 4 playing as partners (cf. pitch). “He sees Curly where he sits at seven-up, with his back turned towards him.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.
simoleon = a dollar. “I’m sort o’ estimatin’ in my mind that we’re ahead about four hundred simoleons.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.
skew-gee = crooked, slanted, cockeyed. “The dashboard’s smashed into matches, the tumblin’-rods is broke, the spark-condenser’s kaflummuxed, and the hull blamed business is skew-gee.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.
slimpsy / slimsy = flimsy, frail. “Monday mornin’s they’re sleepy and kind o’ dreamy and slimpsy, and good f’r nothin’ on Tuesday and Wednesday.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.
slough = a card game for 4-6 players, originating in Germany; also known as “solo.” “He no longer found diversion in his nightly game of ‘slough’ in the card room of the Terriberry House.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.
shoot the chutes = any phenomenon or experience of persistent or violent ups and downs, as one fluctuating between prosperity and recession or elation and despair. “I never permit myself to be identified with failures. When I see that things are shootin’ the chutes I pull out.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.
snuffy = a wild or spirited horse. “There was one snuffy little bay gelding that he meant to turn over to Luck for a saddle horse, and he wanted to get him caught and in the stable.” B. M. Bower, The Phantom Herd.
soda to hock = from first to last card in the game of faro; figuratively, the whole thing, start to finish, beginning to end. “Gamblers and businessmen runs opposite from soda to hock. One takes nothin’ but chances; the other takes everything except.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Folks.
solemncholy – solemn and melancholy, woe-begone, troubled. “Laugh with us, old solemncholy! See the ground spin! Laugh, I say, or be a hitchin’ post, and we’ll dance the May-pole round you!” Agnes Christina Laut, Lords of the North.
spavined = lame, maimed. “‘The critter,’ Carter said, ‘is blind, spavined, sweenied, and old enough to homestead.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.
spotted pup = rice pudding. “‘Close shave that,’ panted Glenister, feeling his throat gingerly, ‘but I wouldn’t have missed it for spotted pup.’” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.
spraddle = to sprawl, straggle, spread out, scatter. “The men who were to drive the herd ki-yied it out, and spraddled it en route, and away they went, herd and beeves, in a cloud of dust.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!
|Captain on taffrail|
taffrail = a rail and ornamentation around a ship's stern. “The faintest line of contour yet left visible spoke of the buoyancy of another element; the balustrade of her roof was unmistakably a taffrail.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.
Tempest and Sunshine = a novel by Mary Jane Holmes (1825-1907), prolific and best-selling American author; published 1854. “Anything in print received our most respectful consideration. “Jane Porter’s Scottish Chiefs brought to us both anguish and delight. Tempest and Sunshine was another discovery.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.
|Mary Jane Holmes, 1896|
tippet = scarf. “Windows of sickrooms are opened, the merry small boy goes to school without his tippet, and men lay off their long ulsters for their beaver coats.” Hamlin Garland, Well-Travelled Roads.
too dead to skin = unquestionably dead. “If he commits any further atrocities ag’in this innocent Willyum child, I’ll shore leave him too dead to skin.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
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: Max Evans, Bobby Jack Smith You Dirty Coward!