Monday, January 2, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 24

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 Honoré Willsie Morrow’s novel The Heart of the Desert about the abduction of a white woman by an Indian, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don about the fate of a Spanish land grant rancho in California, and Patience Stapleton’s Babe Murphy, about an independent young woman in Colorado. Once again I struck out a few times. If anybody knows the meaning of  “limping piper” or “in the moon,” leave a comment.

basket of chips = a basket made of thin strips of wood interwoven or joined; title of a collection of anecdotes and poems (1888) by noted humorist and poet Joseph Bert Smiley (1864-1903). “My young man carried my carpet bag when I changed cars and saw me aboard all right, as polite as a basket of chips.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

bludgy = thieving by violence if necessary. “‘I’m liable to follow Indian tradition and take whatever I want, by whatever means!’ ‘My! My!’ said Rhoda, ‘that sounds bludgy.’” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

calf’s head jelly = head cheese; a meat jelly made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig and often set in aspic. “It is a good thing, I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, a very fortunate thing, that I am so amiable, and Gabriel so good a fellow, or else I would have punched his head into calf’s head-jelly, twice a day, many times.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

chromo = an unattractive person. “Git onto that old chromo; Beach has got a school marm that will stay this time.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

Concord wagon = four-wheeled, horse-drawn wagon or coach for carrying one, two or more passengers; made in Concord, New Hampshire. “I brought the Concord wagon for the women folks and the light spring wagon for the boys and Tisha.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

dogger = a worker performing a menial task. “No wonder nature kicks you out with all manner of illness. You are mere doggers of the machinery.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

domino = a large, hooded cloak with a mask covering the eyes, worn at masquerades. “I think the best plan is to wear a domino and mask, as we go in with you ladies, so that you may not be recognized.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

figure-four trap = a simple deadfall animal trap, with supports arranged in the shape of the number 4. “Instead of shooting the rabbit for supper, I’m going to try a figure-four trap.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

Four-in-hand, Thomas Eakins, 1899
four-in-hand = a vehicle drawn by four horses and driven by one person. “Robert Gunther passed by, driving his four-in-hand at a furious speed, with a very handsome girl sitting by his side.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

frog = the point in a railroad switch where two rails cross. “‘I’ve caught my foot in a switch-frog,’ muttered Kut-le, keeping his hold on Rhoda with one hand while with the other he tugged at his moccasined foot.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

horse-hair = a fabric made from fibers taken from the mane or tail of horses; used for upholstery. “My horse-hair trunk was along, too, and when there was time, and it was possible, I got out at stations and peeked in the baggage car to see it wall all right.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

Page from The New England Primer
John Rogers = so-called “first Protestant martyr,” whose wife and ten children witnessed his burning at the stake, as depicted in the New England Primer (where it is spelled “John Rodgers”). “She was a widow with a John Rodgersy sort of family, nine children like I used to read about in the primer.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

lancers = a quadrille for eight or sixteen pairs. “Lizzie has been looking for you; she wants you for a partner in the lancers.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

mare’s nest = an extremely confused, entangled, or disordered situation. “Evidently the solicitor is beating the bush to start some game, and will be satisfied with a ‘mare’s nest,’ if he can only entangle the Attorney General in it.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

miaul = meow. “He snorts and clucks and growls and snarls. Romeo says he miauls like a disappointed hyena.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

Miss Nancy = an effeminate man; presumably homosexual. “Parting a name always seemed to me like parting a man’s hair in the middle, and both habits to belong to Miss Nancy’s.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

mouchoir = handkerchief. “She had been embroidering a mouchoir case for Clarence that unfortunate afternoon of Darrell’s performance, when she heard loud talking in the piazza.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

Mrs. Grundy = a narrow-minded, conventional person extremely critical of any breach of propriety. “Mrs. Grundy ascertained who were to be the best-dressed ladies, what their pedigree was, and how their money had been made.” Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don.

murphy = a potato. “Oh, you ain’t up to Western slang, a Murphy then. Really Murphy, slang for potato. I’m of Irish distraction, as Mrs. Finnerty says.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

P. C. = prominent citizens. “‘Depewted,’ he said, ‘by a number of prominent citizens,’ with the usual meddlesomeness of the P. C. in all communities.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

pip = ill humor, poor health; a disease of poultry and other birds. “‘You certainly have about as much spunk as a chicken with the pip!’ he said contemptuously.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

Sailors at helm, 1888
put on dog = to show off, put on airs. “Don’t put on dog just because you belong to the white race. You’re disreputable, and you know it.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

trick at the wheel = time allotted to a sailor on duty at the helm. “I’ve played the baby act on this picnic as much as I propose to. It is my trick at the wheel.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Budd Boetticher, Comanche Station (1960)


  1. "calf's head jelly." Egads that sounds about as bad as anything I've ever heard. Glad I live in an age where I don't have to make use of every piece of the cow. :)

  2. I heard several of these growing up, especially concerning the "Mrs. Grundies" at church. Recently I've read "bag of chips" from a couple new (blog) writers as in "he thinks he's all that AND a bag of chips." It would mean something different to young readers, but maybe there's a linguistic memory being tapped.

  3. Interesting collection of words, Ron. Too bad some of these descriptive phrases have gone out of fashion. Saw my share of horse-hair as a lad when my dad was engaged in the antiques trade.

  4. The most interesting item in this post has to be the photo of the horse thief being hanged. Evidently even in 1900, thieves were still being strung up despite the inroads of law and order.

  5. Charles, I dunno, have you checked to see what's in the sausages at the supermarket?

    Richard, what's that, a reference to Subway?

    jrlindermuth, amazing the many uses horsehair was put to.

    Peter, tongue was a delicacy among my German forebears.

    Walker, I was shocked by that photo actually; though lynching was not uncommon in the US even into the 1930s.

  6. "dogger" was a term I heard often when I was a kid. A rancher I used to work for would say to us, "you don't do well in school, you'll just end up being a dogger."