Monday, January 10, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 6

Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from reading books about that era. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from George Pattullo’s collection of western animal stories, The Untamed (1911), and W. C. Tuttle’s Thicker Than Water (1927). Once again I struck out on a term or two. If anybody knows the meaning of “Gourd puncher,” leave a comment.

bear grass = a flowering grass-like plant, growing in bunches and native to western North America; long used by Native Americans to weave baskets; also known as squaw grass, soap grass, and quip-quip.  “Behind a clump of bear-grass crouched a coyote, his foxlike nose pointed toward the spot where snoozed her unprotected son.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Bear grass, photo by Sterlic
blackleg = a quickly fatal disease of young cattle caused by a bacterial infection; symptoms include lameness, loss of appetite, rapid breathing, high fever, and swelling. “They saw a companion die slowly from blackleg, and another practically eaten alive by the fearful screw-worm.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

blatherskite = rubbish, foolish talk. “For she would have fought anything on four legs for the life of that loose-jointed, red-and-white blatherskite she held to be prince of his race.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Bear grass basket, photo by Joe Mabel
bo = a vagrant, a tramp. “Maybe some bo flagged us down for a ride.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

bole = the trunk of a tree. “While the dark was yet young, he scaled a pine tree – a tree bole was to the lion as greensward to the antelope – and sat comfortably on a thick limb.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

buck = to play faro or poker. “Some of the boys would drop in at the Eagle, buy a round of drinks and go out, none of them offering to buck the games.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

caracole = a half-turn on horseback, to left or right. “The horses caught the infection of excitement from the packed stands and champed on their bits and caracoled and waltzed sideways in a manner highly unbecoming a staid cow-pony.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

curvet = a light leap by a horse, in which both hind legs leave the ground just before the forelegs are set down. “As a starter and a spur to courage he curveted clumsily, but was brought up short by the sight of another calf of about his own age, standing not a dozen yards away, surveying him with the liveliest interest.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

demijohn = a large bottle having a short, narrow neck, and usually being encased in wickerwork. “He spent much time by himself in his dirty shack, drinking from a demijohn which he kept hidden under some sacks in a corner.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Driving wheel, by Duncan Harris
drivers = the wheels of a locomotive that transmit the power of an engine or motor to the track. “Then the drivers gripped heavily and the engine surged ahead.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

ecarte = a two-player card game similar to whist and closely related to euchre. “I just got nicked for a hundred in your ecarte game.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

frog = an elastic, horny substance growing in the middle of the sole of a horse’s hoof. “His horse had picked up a small stone in the frog of its right front foot, and was limping badly.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

Go it! = a general exclamation of encouragement; Go for it! “‘Hi, Corazon! Go it, boy!’ they yelled.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

heel fly = a large, bee-like parasite that deposits its eggs on the legs of cattle; also called cattle grub and warble fly. “He learned to eat grass, of which accomplishment he was at first inordinately proud, and he throve on it; and he had but one worry in the world – heel flies.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Horse hoof by Alex brollo
high-ball = a railway man’s hand signal to set a train in motion. “‘Nobody in sight,’ said the brakeman wearily. ‘Might as well high-ball, Charley.’” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

hoodlum wagon = on trail drives a second wagon used to carry gear and supplies of a large crew.  “Behind came Al with the hoodlum wagon, which, being much lighter, made easy work for a pair of stout horses.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

loafer = a subspecies of the wolf, also known as the buffalo wolf and Great Plains wolf.  “The night silence was rent by the hunting cry of the loafer.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

mug = to ruin, interfere with, make a mess of . “The spaniel persisted in messing about and mugging a trail, and his owner pig-headedly abetted him.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

oil-cake = coarse residue obtained after oil is removed from various oilseeds, rich in protein and minerals and valuable as animal feed. “The men rode range in all weathers, setting out oil-cake and salt.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

panocha = a fudge-like confection of brown sugar, cream or milk, and chopped nuts. “Tommy was eating panocha on the steps of the porch, a favorite diversion with him.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Wolf (canus lupus baileyi)
pass the buck = originally, the use of a knife with a buckhorn handle as a marker in the game of poker [explanations vary]. “In the larger houses there is a dealer, who merely does the dealing and takes care of the rake-off for the house, but in a place like the Eagle the dealer takes an active part in the game, passing the buck each time to indicate which player is to be dealt to first.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

pike = back out, hold oneself back.  “The rest of the players piked along, causing the dealer little concern.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

pringle = cause or experience a tingling sensation; prickle. “Suddenly he stiffened, the hairs on neck and back pringling.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

roach = to clip or cut off (a horse’s mane). “He may be riding a sorrel horse with a roached mane, branded 93 on left hip.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Panocha, photo by JerryFriedman
rounder = vagrant, habitual drunkard or wastrel. “Indeed, Come-a-Seven bade fair to be a rounder. While the other cattle would be sleeping peacefully on the bed ground, the young red-and-white would go up and down through the herd, trying to start some excitement.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

sharp-shod = of a horse, shod with shoes having sharpened projections to prevent sliping on ice. “Several years previous to this time Butch had been kicked square in the face by a sharp-shod horse.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

water-gap = the location on a stream that is crossed by a fence, typically requiring repair after flooding. “There was a water-gap to be repaired and they headed for the Salt Fork of the Brazos.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

zacatón = a wiry grass native to the southwest US and Mexico, used in making brushes and paper. “Instead she was roaming the zacaton flats of the Tumbling K and losing herself among the blackbrush ridges, in vague wonder that the world was grown so large.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

Image credits:

Coming up: Hoot Gibson in Wild Horse (1931)


  1. Hi Ron, the word Bletherskite? It has been used in my native Cumberland, (now Cumbria) Since time began, referred to a woman generally, who talked far to much!!
    Wonder if the word got transported, so to speak?

  2. Sharp shod. I'd seen that but had no idea what it meant. I knew of blackleg, having grown up around cattle.

  3. There's an advanced dressage maneuver called the courbette, one of the "airs above the ground," in which the horse performs several hops on its hind legs (in a rearing position, basically). I wonder if "curvet" developed from the same word.

    First thing I thought of when I saw "drivers" was the lyrics to "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe." Similarly, "rounder" made me think of "He's a Tramp" from Disney's Lady and the Tramp. :)

  4. I'm getting better knew six this time--fun.

  5. Cheyenne, some of these early western writers are expat Brits, so that may account for it.

    Charles, I've heard of some of these terms, but didn't know precisely what they meant.

    Elisabeth, good connections. I'm finding terms from dressage in these novels. You could be right.

    Susan, thanks for dropping by. There will be more.

    OGR, there must be a gold star around here somewhere for you... :-)