Thursday, August 26, 2010

Old West glossary

Montana cowboys, c1910
I’ve been collecting words and phrases again from these books I’ve been reading from 100 years ago. As I’ve got a wheelbarrow full, I’m going to empty it here and go back for more. Credit for assistance in this linguistic sleuthing once again goes to Ramon Adams’ The Cowboy Dictionary, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and Two words I never ran down were jookalorum and zizzaparoola. They’re both from O. Henry, and my hunch is he made em up.

For a consolidated list of all BITS Old West glossaries, click here.

See also:
Old West glossary of strong drink
Old West cuss words

A to Izzard = A to Z. “One man who don’t know nothin’ about prospectin’ goes an’ stumbles over a fortune an’ those who know it from A to Izzard goes ’round pullin’ in their belts.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20

all wool and a yard wide = genuine, not fake, honorable. “‘I never denied you much,’ he looked down at her. ‘But the man that gets you’s got to be all wool an’ a yard wide.’” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

arnica = an herbal remedy for muscle aches, inflammation, and wounds. “Some men grab at it so much like they was going to set a dislocation of the shoulder that you can smell the arnica and hear ’em tearing off bandages.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

asafetida = a foul-smelling medicinal herb used as a remedy for variety of complaints from stomach pains to flatulence. “Some take it up like a hot horseshoe, and hold it off at arm’s length like a druggist pouring tincture of asafetida in a bottle.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

beard = to confront boldly. “He felt that Mark would not risk bearding both himself and Dan Mayne on their own ground.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

botts = a parasitic infestation of the intestines of animals, especially horses, by larvae of the botfly. “Why, once over on Snake River, when Andrew McWilliams’ saddle horse got the botts, he sent a buckboard ten miles for one of these strangers that claimed to be a botanist.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

Branding cattle, South Dakota, 1888
buck and wing = a kind of tap dance. “In the center of the room was a large man dancing a fair buck-and-wing to the time so uproariously set by his companions.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20

buck at faro = probably a reference to the phrase “buck the tiger,” associated with the game of faro played in frontier saloons. “What’ll we do – take in the Niagara Falls, or buck at faro?” O. Henry, Heart of the West

bump of location = in phrenology, the ability to recognize place and find one’s way. “MacRae’s bump of location was nearly as well developed as Piegan’s.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

burn powder = fire a gun. “For a breath Robin thought Shining Mark meant to burn powder at last and he stiffened in his tracks, half turned, ready.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

cañada = (Spanish) a sheep camp or ranch. “. . . just the logical disclosures in the case of me and that pink-eyed snoozer from Mired Mule Cañada. O. Henry, Heart of the West

cap-a-pie = head to foot, complete. “In a week the J7 was cap-a-pie – fourteen cow-punchers, two horse wranglers, a capable cook, wagons stocked with grub.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

chaffing = teasing, bantering (also chaffering). “I was prepared to hear a good deal of chaffing about getting lost.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

cocktail = the short watch on herd between supper and dusk. “That evening Steele assigned him to ‘cocktail’.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

coma mott = small grove of trees. “I used to see her in that coma mott back of the little horse corral.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

Colorado-claro = light brown (said of cigars). “She made a good, mild, Colorado-claro wife.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

Frederic Remington, 1895
crack-loo  = a form of gambling in which coins are tossed high into the air with the object having one's coin land nearest a crack in the floor. “Then they would order three or four new California saddles from the storekeeper, and play crack-loo on the sidewalk with twenty-dollar gold pieces.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

cut ice = be important, carry weight. “But you cut a lot of ice in this country, or your dad does, and it’s the same thing.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

cut up didoes = play pranks. “But you ain’t a-helpin’ yourself a-cuttin’ of didoes like this.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

dragging the long rope = “a range euphemism for stealing other men’s cattle, specifically unbranded calves.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

galley-west = askew, confused, lopsided. “That scheme was knocked galley-west and crooked.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

gazabo = a fellow, a guy (derogatory). “‘That long, stoop-shouldered gazabo’s got the stuff on him,’ he growled.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

heeled = armed, wearing a gun. “Maybe he’d ’a’ got me if I’d been heeled.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

hop the twig = make a hasty exit. “If I catches Birdie off of Mired Mule again, I’ll make him hop the twig.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

Ishmael = an outcast. “Months in a strange country had taught Robin that he was not the stuff of which an Ishmael is made.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

Cowboys in the Badlands, Thomas Eakins
jacal = (Spanish) a small house or shack built by driving vertical stakes into the ground and filling in walls between the stakes with adobe. This quarter of the town was a ragged edge; its denizens the bubbling froth of five nations; its architecture tent, jacal, and 'dobe.O. Henry, Heart of the West

kalsomining = applying a whitewash to ceiling or walls. The bartender rounded the bar in a casual way, looking up at the ceiling as though he was pondering some intricate problem of kalsomining.O. Henry, Heart of the West

megrims = depression, unhappiness. “Overtaken by the megrims, the philosopher may seek relief in soliloquy.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

oil of bergamot = an ingredient of perfume extracted from bergamot oranges. “In a few minutes Paisley drops around, with oil of bergamot on his hair, and sits on the other side of Mrs. Jessup.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

opodeldoc = a camphorated liniment of soap mixed with alcohol. “‘I’d assault a bear that was annoying you,’ says Paisley, ‘or I'd endorse your note, or rub the place between your shoulder-blades with opodeldoc the same as ever’. O. Henry, Heart of the West

orchestrion = a mechanical music-making device. I see in St. Louis once what they call a orchestrion.O. Henry, Heart of the West

perdu = hidden, concealed. “Until after the noon hour we laid perdu in the hollow, no wiser for our watching.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

Picketwire = Purgatoire River (River of Lost Souls) in southeast Colorado. John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance claims to be the best gun south of the Picketwire. See

play hunk = get even. “‘Th’ wall-eyed piruts,’ he muttered, and then scratched his head for a way to ‘play hunk’.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20

Texas Jack Omohundro
pound one’s ear = to sleep. “Gee whiz, I’m sleepy! I’m goin’ to pound my ear again.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

put the skibunk on = impose, defraud. “I couldn't let him put the skibunk on you.O. Henry, Heart of the West

seidlitz powder = a medication made by mixing powders of sodium potassium tartrate, sodium bicarbonate, and tartaric acid, used for its laxative effect or to treat hangovers. Him and me seen the elephant and the owl, and we had specimens of this seidlitz powder wine.O. Henry, Heart of the West

saleratus = sodium bicarbonate (or sometimes potassium bicarbonate) as the main ingredient of baking powder. “It is not to be expected that a guest should put up with wheat coffee and biscuits yellow-streaked with saleratus for longer than that.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

shebang = hut, house, home, quarters. “There was a kind of sheebang – you couldn’t call it a hotel if you had any regard for the truth – on the outskirts of Walsh, for the accommodation of wayfarers.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

singlefoot = a rapid gait of a horse in which each foot strikes the ground separately. “By the time he gets half a mile out of Pimienta, I singlefoots up beside him on my bronc.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

skypiece = brains. “If you only got a twice-by-two skypiece all the schoolin’ in the world won’t land you on top of the heap.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

snoozer = sheep or sheep man. “He’d been raised a cow pony and didn’t much care for snoozers.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

spite house = a building constructed or modified to irritate neighbors or other property owners. “'Twas a ranch country, and fuller of spite-houses than New York City.” O. Henry, “The Hiding of Black Bill”

steam piano = calliope. “Too chivalrous to surprise and capture a town by silent sortie, he paused at the nearest corner and emited his sloganthat fearful, brassy yell, so reminiscent of the steam piano.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

stirrup cup = a last drink before leaving. “They would ordinarily have found some of the outfit, perhaps have played stud poker an hour or two, taken a stirrup cup and departed.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

strangler = killer. “I don’t want no strangler work on this range, nor shootin’ – unless deputy sheriffs do the shootin’.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

XIT cowboys, 1891
sudaderos = saddle blankets or pads. “We stopped in San Antonio long enough for Solly to buy some clothes, and eight rounds of drinks for the guests and employees of the Menger Hotel, and order four Mexican saddles with silver trimmings and white Angora sauderos [sic] to be shipped down to the ranch.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

tanglefoot = whisky. “‘Yu ask Buck where yore tanglefoot is.’ ‘I’d shore look nice askin’ th’ boss if he’d rustled my whisky, wouldn’t I?’” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20

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

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

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Picture credits: All images from

Coming up: O. Henry’s Heart of the West


  1. I know a fair amount of those. Picked up from reading I guess, although maybe we used 'em some around where I grew up.

  2. Great!! .......Always good to know another saying!

  3. Nice list--somewhere I have seen a similar list for western mining terms of the 19th Century

  4. Splendid. Like Charles, I knew several of these, but many were new. A century from now, a similar list will include all sorts of odd things. For example, "Ron, your blog IS "all that!" or, as I prefer to say it "all that AND a bag of chips!" (This means "It is very good.")

  5. Good list I hadn't heard a lot of these.

  6. fantastic list. Thank you very much.