Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Old West glossary, no. 4

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from reading books of that era. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as Ramon Adams’ Cowboy Dictionary and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Once again I struck out on a term or two. If anybody knows what a "Shanghai post" is, leave a comment.

amole = the root or other part of several chiefly western North American plants, such as agave and yucca, used as a substitute for soap. “They make ropes out of colts’ tails and rawhide, mold their own candles, and let the women wash with amole to save buying soap.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Enchanted Valley.”

bobtail = the first cowboy(s) guarding the cattle at night. “The bobtail moves the herd to the bed ground – some distance from camp, to avoid mutual annoyance and alarm – and holds it while night horses are caught and supper eaten.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

chop-house = a cheap restaurant. “McCloud took supper afterward with Whispering Smith at a Front Street chop-house, and the two men separated at eleven o’clock.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

Sheet music for Bert A. Williams song, 1896
coon song = popular song mimicking songs sung by Blacks. “They were sheets of gaudy coon songs and ragtime with flaring covers, and they seemed to give off odors of cheap perfume.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

Free Silver = a populist political movement advocating a monetary system in which (like gold) the value of mined silver was the same as the face value of silver coinage. “Some one or two drinks were handed to me, however, a handful of cigars and six dollars change. Them Free Silver fellows shore believed what they said.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Numismatist”

hummer = a person or thing of exceptional excellence. “Miss Dicksie Dunning is a hummer, isn’t she?” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

jackleg = incompetent; dishonest. “Frenchy kept a jackleg lawyer, and he was helping to persecute.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Numismatist”

jay = dull, inferior, poor. “He is a jay with a gun, and you may tell him I said so; do you hear?” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

jerk-line = a single rein that runs to the lead animal in a team of mules or horses. “Freight depot was, too, judging from the evidence of the huge-wheeled wagons rigged with chains and stretchers for twenty-horse ‘jerk-line’ teams.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Enchanted Valley.” More info here.

World War I era poster, c1918
lick = sorghum molasses, used as a sweetener. “‘Lick’ (sorghum molasses) was the only dessert we had in the chuck wagon, and that with cured bacon, frijoles, bread, and coffee constituted our regular chuck.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

light a rag = leave at high speed. “We’ve got ’em! Light a rag, you hungry man!” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

mountain fever = viral infection spread by bite of the wood tick. “They had chosen a time when McCloud, the assistant superintendent of the mine, was down with mountain fever.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

play hob = to cause mischief or disturbance (related to hobgoblin). “‘Now you’ve played hob!’ exclaimed Dave. He swung out of his saddle and gripped Hare with both hands.” Zane Grey, The Heritage of the Desert.

ragtown = a tent city; generic term for a new settlement with temporary structures. A famous Ragtown in modern times was the workers’ shanty town on the floor of the canyon where Hoover Dam was being built on the Colorado River. “We stayed two days in Dodge City, a typical Western ‘ragtown’ in that June, 1874.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

reefer = an overcoat. “McCloud ordered the flat cars cut off the train and the engine whistle sounded at short intervals, and, taking Stevens, buttoned his reefer and started up the grade after the three trackmen.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

ring-tail =  an uncooperative horse, marked by tail swishing. “Many of the government horses and polo ponies in the country at that time were considered ring-tails, sharp spurs having caused the condition.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

riprap = construct a breakwater using as a foundation of loose stone. “They rode to where the forces assembled by Lance were throwing up embankments and riprapping.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

shinny-on-your-own-side = stay within the lines; mind your own business (name given to an early version of field hockey). “They left me here to play shinny-on-your-own-side.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

shooting-box = a small country house providing accommodation for hunters during hunting season. “I intend to secure a holding here – shooting-box, summer-house, that sort of thing – and bring out my nervously prostrated friends to get back into tune with life.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Enchanted Valley.”

show the white feather = display cowardice. “His victim had pulled an engine throttle too long to show the white feather, but he was dying by the time he had dragged a revolver from his pocket.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

sockdolager = a decisive blow or answer; something exceptional. “You caught me a sockdolager on the jaw as I fell, and I just this minute came to.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “Loved I Not Honor More.”

Vaquero with leather coverings over sitrrups
toe fenders = leather hoods covering the stirrups of a saddle. “I learned too that I needed toe fenders, or ‘tapaderas’ as the Mexicans call them, to protect my feet from the thorns.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

toot onsong = the general effect (tout ensemble). “The toot ongsom was calculated to make an escaped lunatic homesick.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Numismatist”

turn turtle = turn over, capsize, be upset. “The doctor felt of his head as if his brain were turning turtle.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

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.

Picture credits:

Coming up: Sheriff of Tombstone (1941)


  1. Some of these and new, and some I knew (no pun intended). I've heard 'turn turtle' and 'show the white feather' pretty frequently, not just in Westerns. Another one I'd encountered before, improbable as it may seem, was 'sockdolager.' :)

  2. I knew only one of those. Couldn't use Reefer that way today in writing.

  3. Good list of which I only knew a few. I've always talked about "jack legs" and of course anyone doing work on the late 19th century in the west would know what was meant by "free silver." Ever hear about the "Crime of '73" (referring to the demonetization of silver?)

    Charles, you think reefer is a problem, coon song would be even more problematic... that shows how much we changed.

  4. It seems to me I've heard the term Shanghai post, but I can't think where or when. I know some of the others, but not all.

  5. Leah, there will be more.

    Elisabeth, it still surprises me when readers say they know some of these words.

    Charles, it's a challenge putting together a list that doesn't have at least several words you already know.

    Sage, I knew about Bryan and the "cross of gold," but not how all the pieces fit together until I researched this. Wasn't there a crash in '73, too?

    Susan, let me know if it comes to you. Thanks for dropping by.

  6. The best such reference is Dictionary of the American West, Winfred Blevins, Facts on File. Win collected five thousand uniquely western terms and applied a lexicographer's discipline to them. The book is a marvel, and I used it constantly. I was a contributor and consultant, and have read every entry (the entries are eminently readable, and form a literature in their own right). He includes Shanghai, but not Shanghai Post, though I suspect the meanings are the same. It is almost an encyclopedia, because it gives the provenance of the expressions.