Monday, January 17, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 7

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 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Most of these are from Peter B. Kyne’s The Three Godfathers (1913), W. C. Tuttle’s Thicker Than Water (1927), and A. M. Chisholm’s Desert Conquest (1913). Once again I struck out on a term or two. If anybody knows the Old West meaning of “soul-trapper” or “case cards,” leave a comment. From context, I’m guessing the word “bluffers” was used for baby bottle nipples, but try as I might, I couldn’t run that one down either.

Bannock, photo by Lou Sander
bannock = a round, flat, thick griddle-cake, made from oatmeal, barley, or flour; a wedge of it is called a scone. “A white man that can cook hates to stay sober long enough to build a bannock.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

buckbrush = common name for several species of North American shrubs that deer feed on. “The country was very rough, and the buck-brush grew thick.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

cat claw = a tree native to the Southwest with hooked thorns the shape and size of a cat's claw that tend to hook onto passers-by. “They were picking their way carefully through clusters of murderous catclaw.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

chuckwalla = a stocky, wide-bodied lizard with a flattened midsection, a prominent belly, and a thick tail, tapering to a blunt tip. “Once he thought a chuckwalla addressed him, saying: ‘Hello, Bob Sangster, what are you runnin’ away from?’” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

Buckbrush, photo by Walter Siegmund
crash = a coarse kind of linen used for towels. “The babe, wrapped in a coarse crash towel, lay in the hollow of the little mother’s arm.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

crawl = to assault. “I jus’ had a battle with Angel. He says he’s goin’ to crawl Slim Caldwell.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

dinger = something outstanding of its kind (cf. humdinger). “It would shore make a dinger of a hide-out.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

dog tent = a small tent shaped like a kennel. “He led a nomadic existence, moved continually from one piece of work to another, his temporary habitations ranging from modern hotels to dog tents and shacks.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.
Catclaw, photo by Stan Shebs

dottle = the plug of half-smoked tobacco in the bottom of a pipe after smoking. “Old Rance knocked the dottle out of his pipe, shoved the pipe in his pocket, and leaned forward on the table, facing the sheriff.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

dulce domum = home sweet home (literally, “Sweetly at Home,” a holiday song associated with St. Mary’s College, Winchester, originating in the 17th century). “Theoretically – heretofore always strictly theoretically – he possessed a strong dulce domum impulse.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest. Full story here.

fog = to go fast. “He ain’t hidin’; he’s foggin’. Betcha ten to one he never comes back.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

gallinipper = a stinging or biting insect. “‘You long-legged gallinipper!’ he roared.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

goose gun = a long-barreled shot gun, so designed for shooting geese in flight. “Yust wait, you faller. Ay gat my goose gun, and Ay blow you all to hal!” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Chuckwalla (Sauromalus obesus)
greasewood = a shrub growing in arid regions, with spiny branches and succulent green leaves, flowering June to August. “The country was rough, and the buck-brush grew thick, with here and there a large patch of greasewood.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

hematite = a very common mineral, iron oxide, occurring in steel-gray to black crystals and in red earthy masses; the principal ore of iron. “The sun was just coming up over the low red hummocks of hematite.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

hummock = a knoll or hillock. “The sun was just coming up over the low red hummocks of hematite.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

Injun sign = a magic spell, a curse, a jinx. “You may be able to hang the Injun-sign on old Rance McCoy, but to us, you’re just another dirty shirt that needs doin’ up.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

Greasewood, photo by Cory Maylett
ironwood = a common name for a large number of woods that have a reputation for hardness. “They made a very small fire of cat-claw and ironwood.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

jinny = female donkey. “D’ye remember, Bill, that yarn that Bob read us outen that Bible last night – about Christ ridin’ into Jerusalem an’ Him sendin’ two men over to the nearest camp for a jinny with a colt?” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

miner’s inch = a unit of measure of water flow, equaling 1.5 cu. ft. (0.04 cu. meter ) per minute. “In vain he showed them the big canal and beautiful system of ditches, and pointed with much enthusiasm to the armour-belted, doubled-riveted clause in the sale contracts guaranteeing to the lucky buyer the delivery of so many miner’s inches or cubic feet of water every day in the year.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Ironwood tree
Joshua Tree = a species of the yucca, resembling a tree, named by Mormon settlers crossing the deserts of the Southwest.  “Dried, withered Joshua trees twisted into fantastic shapes as if their fearful surrounding had caused them to writhe in horror.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

ocotillo = (oh-ko-tee-yo) a tall desert plant of the Southwest and northern Mexico, whose branches resemble spiny dead sticks that sprout many small green leaves after rain and bloom with crimson flowers at the tips. “Up dark, lonely arroyos they went; down long alleys between outstretched arms of the ocatillas [sic] with their pendulous, blood-red blossoms.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

picket = small detachment of troops positioned towards the enemy to give early warning of attack. “And the riders, front and rear, were in the nature of pickets; for, though it was unlikely that any one would be met at that time of night, it was just as well to take no chances.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Joshuna Tree, Wing-Chi Poon
plug tobacco = chewing tobacco made by pressing together cured tobacco leaves in a sweet (often molasses-based) syrup and cut into pieces (plugs). “He was in his shirt sleeves for greater comfort, and he smoked particularly strong plug tobacco in a brier pipe.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

rodman = one who carries a leveling rod for a surveyor (level = a device with a telescope used in surveying; leveling rod = a graduated pole or stick with a movable marker, used to measure differences in elevation). “Now they’re down and out – lucky to get a job with a level and one rodman to boss.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

rub knees = ride side-by-side. “Head for Arizona, cowboy; and I’ll rub knees with yuh.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

run a blazer = to deceive, trick. “I ain’t hostile, special. Only I don’t want him to run no blazers on me.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Salt Trust = an effort in the late 19th century to control the market price of salt. “Evidently the strange habitation had been the abode of some desert visionary, who planned to file on the salt lake and sell his concession to the Salt Trust.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

Ocotillo, photo by Stan Shebs
scrape = contrive to get to know (cf. bow and scrape). “I’ve knowed a lot of folks named Stevens, but she’s the first one I ever felt like scrapin’ up relationship with.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

slap-up = first-rate, excellent. “This Farwell is a slap-up man, and they’d never waste him on this little job without some good reason.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

tear a shirt = bestir oneself.  “That ain’t nothin’ to tear a shirt over.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

tick = a case or cover containing feathers, etc., forming a mattress or pillow. “On a straw tick, covered with blankets, lay a woman.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

toe calk = a device added to a horse shoe to enhance or increase traction. “Put a toe-calk on that foot and he’ll stumble badly.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

Tyrone Power, white tie
white lawn tie = a white bow tie made of a fine sheer linen or cotton fabric of plain weave, for formal wear. “The aged citizen asleep in the chair outside was arrayed in somber black, with a turn-down collar and white lawn tie.” Peter B. Kyne, The Three Godfathers.

yeggman = safe cracker, burglar, thug. “Observe, the gentleman still keeps his sawed-off yeggman’s delight in his pocket.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Image credits:

Coming up: Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red (1914)


  1. I've heard quite a few of these. Know some of them. Is a dog tent an ancestor to a "pup tent?" Probaly eh?

  2. I knew the plant terms. I always thought of plug tobacco as chewing tobacco as the definition indicates, not smoking tobacco as the illustration indicates.

  3. I think I must be getting smarter--got 12 this time. I have enjoyed these lists. I like some of the old books and often run into things I am not sure of. Did you ever find anyone beside Owen Wister use the term cow-boy instead of cowboy.

  4. I recognized most of the plants too. Bannock is also an Indian tribe. I wonder if and how their name is connected with the food?

    I seem to recall Max Brand using the term "yegg," probably an abbreviated form of "yeggman," for various rough characters in his books. And I remember "dolce domum" as being a chapter title in The Wind in the Willows.

  5. For hundreds of years, the term Bannock, has been attributed to a small partially raised bread, from the town of Langholm in the Scottish Borders. Each year, there is a celebration, where the towns folk gather to ride around the Marche Boundaries, the whole thing goes on for several weeks, and is called the Riding of the Marches. Langholm is symbolised by the Bannock and the salt Herring!
    This ceremony is huge! People from all over the world return to Langholm, each year to take part. Try and google it!

  6. Charles, I thought of pup tent, too, but couldn't find any connection anywhere between the two.

    Sage, I had the same reaction.

    OGR, the word "cowboy" in the novels I'm reading normally shows up as one word. I've only read more recent editions of THE VIRGINIAN, where the punctuation has probably been modernized.

    Elisabeth, the plants are familiar to me, too, but for readers living outside the Southwest, I assumed they wouldn't be. If you don't know the story of "dolce domum," click through on it in the list. The phrase goes back a long way and would of course show up in Wind in the Willows.

    Cheyenne, thanks for the lesson on bannocks and the celebration at Langholm. The word scone is generally understood over here (you'll find them at Starbucks), but bannock is not.

  7. I meant the plants were familiar to me from reading Westerns. :) I've never encountered any of them first-hand.