Thursday, October 7, 2010

Old West Glossary

Here’s another edition of Buddies in the Saddle’s ongoing Old West glossary, with terms found in the early westerns I’ve been reading. Authors this time include Andy Adams, Rex Beach, Stewart Edward White, and Charles Alden Seltzer.
Montana cowboys, c1910 [click to enlarge]

For definitions, I’ve consulted a variety of online dictionaries, plus Ramon Adams’ Cowboy Dictionary and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. There’s one term at the end that threw me. If you know the meaning, be sure to leave a comment.

B&S = brandy and soda. “Let's go somewhere for a B & S, and find out about each other.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights

biscuit shooter = camp cook. “Woman she dont need no tooter / Be she skule mam or biscuit shooter.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Coming of the Law

buck nun = a hermit; a cloistered male. “I might as well go be a buck nun and be done with it.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights

Bully! = an expression of approval used apparently widely among cowboys, and not just by Teddy Roosevelt. “Norton’s eyes gleamed with a savage delight. ‘Bully!’ he declared. ‘If you stay here you’ll get plenty of action’.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Coming of the Law

chuck-a-luck = a gambling game played with dice. “And a man's so sick of himself by the time he gets this far that he’d play chuck-a-luck, let alone faro or monte.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights

forty-rod = cheap, strong whiskey, said to be strong enough to kill at a distance of forty rods (11 miles), or to give the drinker strength to run full-speed at that distance, or to permit a drinker to walk no far than that distance. “An average twenty-wagon outfit, first and last, would bring him in somewheres about fifty dollars—and besides he had forty-rod at four bits a glass.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights

Dobbins Mills, Black Hills, Dakota Territory
grass widow = a woman who is separated, divorced, or lives apart from her husband. “Very near the stove sprawled old Mizzou, low-foreheaded, white-bearded, talking always of women and the merits of grass-widows and school-ma’ams.” Stewart Edward White, The Westerners

heady = judicious, exercising good judgment or common sense. “He was a heady fellow, and in drinking had an oak-tan stomach.” Andy Adams, The Outlet

herd-rode = beaten in a fight; overcome. “Herd-rode him, the damned sneaks! Beat him up so’s his own mother wouldn’t know him!” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Coming of the Law

jug = to evade, dodge, avoid. “If those shorthorns attempt to offer any opposition, I’ll run a blazer on them, and if necessary I’ll jug the pair.” Andy Adams, The Outlet

Kentucky breakfast = a three-pound steak, a bottle of whisky, and a setter dog. “What’s the dog for? Why, to eat the steak, of course.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights

Mohammed’s coffin = a European fable in which the coffin of the Prophet is suspended by magnetic force between heaven and earth. “One of the spider-legged horses had fallen, and the rider being projected horizontally forward, was suspended rigidly in mid air like Mohammed’s coffin, and with as much apparent prospect of coming to earth.” Stewart Edward White, The Westerners

Nick Carter = character in a dime novel entitled “The Old Detective’s Pupil; or, The Mysterious Crime of Madison Square” (1886), written by John R. Coryell. “I never heard what Struthers said, but it don’t take no Nick Carter to guess.” Rex Beach, Pardners

Bottler's Ranch, on Yellowstone, Montana, 1871
Mexican stand-off = a situation in which there is no clear winner; an impasse (from poker). “Boys, as fur as the coin goes, we’re out an’ injured; we jest made a ‘Mexican stand-off’—lost our money, but saved our lives.” Rex Beach, Pardners

oak-tan = leather. “He was a heady fellow, and in drinking had an oak-tan stomach.” Andy Adams, The Outlet

pink tea = any frivolous social gathering, attended largely by women. “In them days there wasn’t a railroad in that section, ranches were scatterin’, and people weren’t givin’ pink teas to every stranger that rode up—especially when they were as hard-lookin’ as we were.” Rex Beach, Pardners

run a blazer = deceive, trick. “If those shorthorns attempt to offer any opposition, I’ll run a blazer on them.” Andy Adams, The Outlet

sleeper = a calf that has been ear-marked, but not branded. “Every owner has a certain brand, as you know, and then he crops and slits the ears in a certain way, too. In that manner he don't have to look at the brand, except to corroborate the ears; and, as the critter generally sticks his ears up inquirin’-like to anyone ridin’ up, it’s easy to know the brand without lookin’ at it, merely from the ear-marks. Once in a great while, when a man comes across an unbranded calf, and it ain’t handy to build a fire, he just ear-marks it and let’s the brandin’ go till later. But it isn’t done often, and our outfit had strict orders never to make sleepers.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights

Cowboy, Montana, c1910
sour wine = vinegar, used as a disinfectant. “But for some reason I picked him up and carried him to my ’dobe shack, and laid him out, and washed his cut with sour wine.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights

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

Here’s one I couldn’t find in any source:

handsome boy = ? “I had a kid outfit of h'ar bridle, lots of silver and such, and I used to ride over and be the handsome boy before such outfits as happened along.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights
Does anybody happen to know this one?

Picture credits: All photos from

Coming up: Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy (1897)


  1. I wus wondrin` `bout the cowhand in that last "tin type", saw his face afore? Maybe......or shucks! Maybe not!

  2. I've heard some of these. I'm definitely gonna use Buck-nun though. That's just cool.

  3. Leah, thanks for dropping by.

    Cheyenne, found him in the public domain photos at wikimedia commons. Says only "Cowboy, Grant-Kohrs ranch, Montana, USA, around 1910."

    Charles, it's a blunt phrase that sounds just slightly uncouth...

  4. This would be a good book to have before attempting to write a western. None of these terms were familiar to me.

  5. It seems to me that "handsome boy" all dressed up in fine regalia would be the one who outshines them all or the kid who stood out from the crowd.
    Just a surmise.