Monday, December 5, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 23

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Frederick Niven’s novel Hands Up! about a tenderfoot and a train robber. Once again I struck out a few times. If anybody knows the meaning of  “wax on one’s fingernails,” “wag the whip,” or “picture soldier,” leave a comment.

arnica = an herbal remedy for sprains and bruises. “Oh I don’t think you need anything much. If you like, a little arnica—three parts water, and bathe that jaw.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

big bug = an important person; one who considers himself so. “A man does not become a political big bug without having some kind of savvy.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

bootblack tough = a criminal who starts out as a petty crook. “But the men we were after were not ‘boot-black toughs,’ as the West calls such characters who have graduated through picking pockets, knuckle-dusting—in groups—late homing merchants in alleys, breaking open freight cars, to shooting clerk and teller in some small mining camp.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

bousy = intoxicated, drunk. “The first thing he knew being landed on his back before his bousy finger could press the trigger.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

brass-pounder = telegraph operator. “Scotty, the brass-pounder, over at Black Kettle—the agent—he says Apache went out with them all right.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

bring to book = call to account, investigate, punish. “But ‘using his position erroneous,’ as the narrator expressed it, he was brought to book.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

bucket = saddle scabbard for a rifle. “The troopers had still their rifles in the buckets, but it was safe for Apache then to let go his hold.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

codfish mouthed = open-mouthed; reference to the codfish, which swims with its mouth open. “Pain will teach you how to grip your jaws together and I never heard that a cod-fished-mouthed man was much use.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

cold deck = to cheat, to deceive; dealing from a prepared deck of cards. “That sheriff would never cold-deck no man.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

cook’s bitch = cook’s helper. “What was you doing at the Diamond K? Cook’s bitch?” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

cracksman = burglar. “His name only led on to some tale of another brigand, train-robber, hold-up man; or some horse-thief, brand-faker; or townsmen (for I was not the only man at the Triangle who had begun life in a city) would tell of some cracksman.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

curve = to travel purposefully or with some urgency. “News of Apache Kid’s presence there reaching Lone Tree, the marshal would have come curving into town with a posse at his heels.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

Pre-Raphaelite painting, 1895
greenery-yallery = over-refined, unmanly; reference to the favorite colors, green and yellow, of Pre-Raphaelite British painters and satirized by Gilbert and Sullivan. “So I saw myself, if not a ‘greenery yallery, oh such a good young man’ as—in the phrase of old women—a ‘good son.’” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

guts = undercarriage of railroad cars on which tramps hitched a ride. “His comrade left him lying there, And took the guts of an Eastbound train.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

hair brand = a brand made by burning the hair but not the hide. “You ponder on that and get it fixed proper in you—no hair-brand—but plumb well in.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

jack easy = easy-going; a reference to Frederick Marryat’s comic novel Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836). “My father was a queer old fellow. He was a determined enough man, but very ‘jack easy’ as the word is.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

jig juice = alcohol, spirits, whisky. “He pikes over to call on the mayor, and sets up the jig-juice to him, pours flattering words in his ears.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

kidney = temperament; type. “It was well enough known, he said that representatives of the law and road-agents, and men of such kidney, often (as it is called) ‘josh’ one another.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

kittle cattle = capricious, difficult, erratic, rash. “Relatives are sometimes kittle-cattle, and as I did not know how he would take my letter I wearied for a reply.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

Boss Tweed, 1869
king bolt = a main or large bolt in a mechanical structure; thus, a leader, boss, kingpin. “He has already got the king-bolt but he wants to round up the whole outfit.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

knucklebones = an ancient game, similar to jacks. “Isn’t that just the way ninety-nine men out of a hundred go on dickering with evil week-days and salving it all on Sunday—playing knucklebones with brain, heart, conscience, and what are called primitive instincts?” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

liquidate = to drink. “We passed into the bar and liquidated.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

long clothes = clothing worn by an infant, extending below the feet. “‘Compose myself!’ she cried. ‘And me through the war when you was in long clothes.’” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

lurcher = hooligan, bum. “It must gall you—that lurcher not being dead!” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

pass in one’s checks = to die. “He’d have passed in his checks then if you had not stepped in.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

pike = to leave, run off quickly. “Apache, who had either played possum for sheer devilment, or wakened up and tumbled—after this fellow piked out—and reckoned it was his long suit, though maybe they didn’t think so—well, Apache had ridden along and cached himself there in the scrub.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

push = a crowd, group, gang. “I see—you was broke and so you went on with the Dago push till such times as the white gang would come along?” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

round robin = A petition or protest on which the signatures are arranged in a circle in order to conceal the order of signing. “They want to quit badly. They’ve filed a petition to him—kind of round-robin.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

Smoking concert, 1901
smoking concert = social event for men only with a program of music and comedy and often including drinking. “He who worships a Goddess in spirit and in truth is not likely to slide too often from his chair beneath the table, at a smoking concert.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

spread rail = rails spread apart by the weight of a train causing derailment. “I still has faith in the United States, but there’s individuals I don’t trust no more than a spread rail.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

spraddle = to sprawl, straggle, spread. “The men who were to drive the herd ki-yied it out, and spraddled it en route, and away they went, herd and beeves, in a cloud of dust.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

spring gun = a gun set with a trip wire. “I put spur to my pony so sharply that he leapt forward as if he had been ejected from a spring gun.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

stagger juice = spirits. “I got him to sing it three times, him being that full of song and stagger-juice.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

storm center = a center of trouble or disturbance. “Black Kettle seems to be getting to be a storm-centre.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

tell off = assign to a particular task. “I did my share in the exciting and dirty work of cutting out; and sometimes was told off to lend a hand at the branding during the succeeding days.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

time check = notice of termination of employment. “I took the time check from him, tore it into little pieces and dropped it in the sand.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

tongue-loosener = spirits. “Some devilment makes me throw a lariat of friendship over him and corral him over into the ho-tel and put tongue-loosener into him.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

too green to burn = inexperienced, a tenderfoot. “He’s either plumb locoed, or else he’s too green to burn, or else he’s lookin’ for trouble.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

tumble = realize. “It was at this here point that I tumbles to it where they had come from.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Frederick Niven, Hands Up! (1913)


  1. I'm liking Jig juice and stagger juice!

  2. Another WWI-era Western writer who had an amazing ear for cowboy slang was William Patterson White. A lot of his books are available for download free from online libraries such as Project Gutenberg. Stewart. Alfred Henry Lewis' "Wolfville" stories (also available online) are also great -- colorful, imaginative and very funny.

  3. Oscar, you're welcome and thanks for dropping by.

    Charles, alcohol has a lot of Old West slang terms, for sure.

    Shay, thanks for the tips.

  4. Thanks for letting me know about Niven, he's one that got in under my radar. I just got "Hands Up" as a free download for my Nook. I have so many old Westerns on my Nook I'm surprised it hasn't started packin'an iron.

    Charles Patullo also writes with tongue firmly in cheek and Western slang in the saddle, but the only book of his that I've been able to find online in "The Sheriff of Badger." Which I also recommend (Gutenberg and other places).