Monday, January 3, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 5

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from reading books about that era – in this case, all from a single novel, Mollie Davis’ The Wire-Cutters (1899). Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Once again I struck out on a term or two. If anybody knows the meaning of “squeenchy,” leave a comment.

amen corner = the seats at the front of a church, for those calling out encouragement to the preacher with “amens.” “There’s them settin’ in the amen corner now, under the droppin’s of this here pulpit that has the strenk of Brother Joe Wyatt’s black bull Peter an’ the livers of chickens.”

Church pews, photo by MrHarman
bradawl = a small boring-tool with a non-spiral blade. “Superstitious people were afraid of his pale blue eyes, which pierced, they said, like a brad-awl from under their stiff, shaggy eyebrows.”

briar breaker = an unsophisticated person from the country; a rube, hick. “Mr. Ransome, now dead, had taken precedence even over Uncle Joe Wyatt as a briar-breaker, being among those settlers in the county who had heard the savage yells of the Comanche, and gazed on the shaggy heads of the last of the buffaloes.” 

candle box = box with a sliding lid, originally used for storing candles. “When the letters and other contents of the mailbags had been distributed from the porch, and the candle-box, sacred to post-office affairs, shoved back under his own bed, Mr. Crouch returned with renewed zest to his perch on his fence.”

Vegetables, by Man vyi
cymlin = squash plant having flattened round fruit with a scalloped edge, usually greenish white (also cymling). “The boy is young, and he’s as green as a cymlin, of course.”

ding = damn. “‘That girl is in it, somehow,’ he muttered. ‘Ding the women. They’re in everything.’”

Dominecker = a black-and-white feathered chicken, considered cowardly because it will run from a fight. “A game-cock like you can do up a dozen yellow-legged Domineckers.”

drag-stone = stone pushed against something to keep it from moving. “The rasping of a drag-stone on the floor gave warning that some one was pushing open the door from the outside.”

Hawthorn in bloom
haw = hawthorn. “There was unbroken silence between them until they reached the black-haw thicket where Red was to exchange his wet clothes for dry ones.”

fillip = flick, flip, propel. “The post-oak leaves, brushing his cheek with their rough, wet surfaces, filliped the woodsy dew into his eyes.”

hand gallop = a slow or gentle galloping gait. “He rode off at a hand gallop.”

Horseblock, photo by David Hawgood
horseblock = a small platform of stone or wood for mounting a horse. “Mr. Wyatt, Bible in hand, ascended the horseblock, set  up for the accommodation of the women-folk.”

log-cabin = a patchwork or quilting pattern in which pieces of material are arranged to give the effect of pieces of wood formed into adjoining squares. “‘Yo’ new log-cabin quilt, Mrs. Kinchley,’ interposed Mrs. Red Parsons volubly, ‘is the prettiest quilt in the’ – .”

mullein strengthener = herbal remedy for sore throat, cough, and lung diseases. “The women loved him for his gentleness, and his (apparent) need of red flannel, horehound syrup, and mullein strengthener.”
Mullein, by Charles Demartigny

play ducks and drakes = throw money away, squander; originally, to skip stones on water. “And it is a charming thing, is it not, to hear a man who has made ducks and drakes of his life, and who will probably continue to do so until he, or somebody else, blows his brains out.”

pursy = fat, corpulent. “He had grown pursy and portly; the hatchet face had puffed out and the sharp nose was rounded to a scarlet bulb at the end.”

odd-come-short = fragments, odds and ends. “The Lord only knows what odd-come-short of a tale he’s tellin’ Margaret Ransome.”

Post oak (Quercus stellata)
post oak = a slow-growing, drought resistant, medium-sized tree found in the Southeastern and South Central U.S., used widely for fence posts (also called iron oak). “The sun was near its setting; a yellow haze filtered through the scant foliage of the stubby post-oaks that covered the wide monotonous stretch of rolling country.”

rail pile = A pile fabricated from railroad rails which are welded together and driven as a unit. “I’d rather tear out my heart and burn it on a rail-pile than to let him go.”

ride and tie = the sharing of a horse by two people. (One person walks as the other rides ahead a distance, ties the horse, and continues walking. Catching up to the horse, the walker then rides the horse, passing the second person and repeating the process.)

ridered = of a fence strengthened with braces (riders). “Bud ran down the cotton-row, leaped the staked and ridered fence like a squirrel, crossed over to the edge of the dry creek, and stopped under a pecan-tree.”  

sash-lights = window panes. “Hilliard’s friends were protesting in loud and angry amazement against the implied suspicion, and freely offering to ‘lick the sash-lights’ out of his detractors.”

serried = pressed close together, shoulder-to-shoulder. “A compact and serried line of saddle-horses nosed the court-house fence.”
Stanhope phaeton, drawing by Morburre

soul-case = the body. “It’ll pretty near shake his soul-case to pieces to do it.”

Soul-Sleeper = advocate of the belief that after death the soul sleeps until Judgment Day. “I’m a Soul-Sleeper myself, an’ I’m mighty willin’ to let ’em have a Soul-Sleepin’ Sunday.”

stanhope = a light open one-seated carriage with two or four wheels, first made for English inventor Charles Stanhope (1753-1816). “The carriage house remained, with the great family carriage, and master’s stanhope.” 

Woman at tambour frame, by F. H. Drouai
syllabub = a drink made of milk mixed with wine, cider,  or rum, sweetened, spiced, and served warm (also sillabub). “Mrs. Crouch, with Mrs. Wyatt, and the Mrs. Parsons, was in the kitchen, which was set well back in the yard, frying chicken, boiling the candy, and setting sillabubs to cool, in the torch-lit back-yard.”

tambour frame = a frame in which fabric is held taut for embroidering. “Aunt Pauline, darker and more withered and shrunken than ever, looked up from her tambour-frame.”

Picture credits:

Coming up: The Return of Frank James (1940)


  1. I've usually seen 'serried' as a military term - e.g. 'serried ranks' or 'serried lances.'

  2. Ron, maybe squeenchy pertains to being all squinched up - like a face is squinchy, all puckered and contorted and pinched or a person's body could be squinchy - knees drawn up and shoulders down with arms around the knees, squinched up to keep himself warm etc.

  3. It's amazing how few of those terms are in use today. I always find it fascinating to learn the origins of terms that we use now.

  4. Good stuff -- when I read some of the old stuff I find my self looking up terms and words. Part of the enjoyment of reading the pre-1900 stuff.

  5. I'm hearing lots of unusual expressions in Bar 20. Most I can puzzle out but not all.

  6. Leah, glad you dropped by. HNY2U2!

    Elisabeth, I think you're right. That's the origin of the word.

    Oscar, if you do a google search, that meaning comes up and so do several others.

    Susan, I have an etymology dictionary that's fun to just open at random.

    OGR, I'm with you. It's almost like translating from another language.

    Charles, the Bar-20 CBs have their own slanguage, that's true.

  7. Interesting list--I wonder about the "Amen Corner" though, i would have thought it being in the back or to the side. In the 19th Century, at least in revivals, the first couple of rows were often called the "Anxious Seats" where those needing a change in their lives would sit listening and ready to make a confession

  8. I’ve tried all sorts of coughing syrups, believe me, but none of them helps. Even though Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa does not eliminates the cough I like to stick to this chinese syrup I’ve been taking since I was a kid: Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa. My grandfather is chinese, so I guess my mom got the advice from him. I was really surprised when I found that chinese market selling it here in Belgium. It does have a refreshing, soothing, sweetening effect…as long as it lasts…then back to coughing mode.