Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 38

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms and some forgotten people, gleaned 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, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Herman Whitaker’s The Settler, about a homegrown tycoon on the plains of Manitoba. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “fool killer,” “lumberman’s cake,” “gillypot,” or “put a head on,” leave a comment below.

ahint = behind. “Been riding ahint of you this half-hour, but you never looked back.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

back-setting = turning broken sod back to its original place with additional fresh soil to cover it. “I was back-setting the thirty acres down by the lake when I heard a shot an’ a yell.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Black knot
black knot = a fungal disease of certain varieties of fruit trees. “I’m scairt as the black knot has got inter that orchard o’ yourn, sir.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

bluestone = copper sulphate, used in solution to treat varieties of wheat and oats. “He intended a visit to the barn, where his man was dipping seed wheat in bluestone solution to kill the smut.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

by the ears = in close contest with an unrelenting opponent. “For the settlement would be by the ears, she said, just as long as she stayed in it.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

cant hook = an iron hook at the end of a long handle used for rolling logs. “Ole, that big Swede, is chain lightning on a cant-hook.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

choke-bored = the manufacture of a shotgun barrel with a constriction towards the muzzle end to reduce the area of concentration of pellets, perfected by 19th-century English gunsmith, W.W Greener. “It was choke-bored, Mrs. Ravell. At eighty-yards it would put every shot inside of a three-foot circle.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

cookee = a cook’s assistant. “His greenish face aglow with insolence, he was holding an empty platter out to the nearest cookee.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

crammer = a lie. “‘Poor child!’ Mrs. Leslie patted her shoulder. ‘But why did you tell her such crammers?’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

diamond = the intersection of two railways. “He has put two of our heaviest engines into the ditch and ten men into hospital. Not bad, but—he didn’t lay the diamond.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Lord Dundreary
Dundreary = a character of the 1858 British play Our American Cousin; the personification of a good-natured, brainless aristocrat. “An elderly man, his clear eyes, honest face, framed in white side-whiskers of the Dundreary style, all stamped him as belonging to the old-fashioned school of finance.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Greener = a rifle or shotgun developed and manufactured in England by the W.W. Greener family, starting in 1829. “She brought him the famous double-barrelled Greener which, having disarranged the lock action in trying to clean it, Danvers had left with the trustee for repairs.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

haps = events; fortunes (good or bad). “They smoked and revamped the day’s haps, its dips, jams, duckings.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Henry Irving
Irving, Henry = an English stage actor and theatrical manager (1838-1905); the first actor to be awarded a knighthood. “He’s great, Mrs. Carter; puts it all over Henry Irving.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

key log = the log which, if removed, would free up a whole logjam. “She reproduced every detail for her pale audience of one—Carter astride of the key-log; his men, bating their breath with the ‘huh’ of his stroke; Bender’s distress; the cynical grin of Michigan Red.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

levies = men enlisted for some purpose. “Bender and the woodmen beat back the monopoly’s levies while the trackmen laid the ‘diamond.’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Letter A, London alphabet
London alphabet = a book with a page for each letter of the alphabet, printed in red and illustrated with drawings of London landmarks. “Even the remittance-men, who had been wont to spell amusement in the red letters of the London alphabet, were there.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler. See all 26 letters.

mizzle = make a sudden departure. “You’d better mizzle—go home, you know.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Mrs. Grundy = the mythical standard bearer of conventional social proprieties; originated as a character in Thomas Morton’s play, Speed the Plough (1798). “If, so far, she had lived in the fear of Mrs. Grundy, her conformity inhered in two causes.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Lindley Murray
Murray, Lindley = American grammarian and textbook author (1745-1826), whose popular English Reader preceded the McGuffey Readers. “The darn language seems to have grown from wild seed, an’ though Lindley Murray—ain’t that his name?—lopped a bit here an’ pruned a bit there, he couldn’t straighten the knarls and twists in the trunks.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

peavey = a lumberer’s cant-hook with a spike at the end; named after the inventor. “With axe, pevees, cant-hooks, Bender and his men broke the jams.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

per mensem = by the month. “Having rejected his heart with a pecuniary attachment of thirty-five dollars per mensem, she fell like a shooting-star and became a mere receptacle for his succeeding passions.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

plucked = courageous. “She was that well-plucked she’d laughed at the idea of spending her nights at Flynn’s.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

port = deportment, carriage, bearing. “And there’s the sky pilot! What a Jovelike port!” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

prink = to preen oneself. “She sang at her work—warbling that was natural as that of the little bird which prinks and plumes for its mate in the morning sunlight.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

ruffle it = to swagger. “Alas! as well expect a rabbit to ruffle it with wolves.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

ruth = a feeling of distress or grief. “Why, for instance, is it that pitilessness, ferocity, ruth, which were good in the youth of the world, should cause such evil in its old age?” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

River scour, USGS, 1906
scour = a shallow place in a river where the bed is of gravel. “The river carried them to its secret places; buried them in some scour or pothole.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

shortening = beginning to dress a baby in short clothes. “Behold the pair fussing and sewing certain small garments with much tucking, trimming, insertioning, regulating said processes by the needs of some future mystery dight ‘shortening.’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

smut = any of several fungal plant diseases characterized by the formation of black powdery spores. “He intended a visit to the barn, where his man was dipping seed wheat in bluestone solution to kill the smut.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

spalpeen = a rascal. “There’ll be no way for thim spalpeens to fire us av the boord?” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

undying worm = a reference to biblical prophecies regarding eternal punishment of the wicked. “The evangelist, a stout man of bull-like build, proceeded to cut off yards of the ‘undying worm,’ and to measure bushels of the ‘fire that quencheth not.’” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

wet = drink to. “Not till we wet your wedding.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

Image credits:
London alphabet,
River scour, USGS archive
All others, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah (1890)


  1. This page (bottom paragraph and footnote) might shed a little light on "fool killer." Here is the O. Henry story that's referred to. But since it apparently has a Southern origin, I wonder if it would appear in a British/Canadian novel?

    1. Thanks for the word sleuthing, Elisabeth. My guess is that the phrase was in common usage and may originate in some folk tale. But I've been surprised that I've turned up nothing despite several searches.

  2. Well done, Ron! I always learn a lot from your glossaries.

  3. An especially good entry. Smut was a common concern in the cornfields where I grew up. Liked seeing Mrs. Grundy again. And "peavey." Is it the source of our modern "pet peaves?"

    1. I remember smut well, too. The peavey was actually named after its inventor, so pet peaves probably comes from elsewhere.

  4. Clete, Dave Robicheaux's sidekick in the James Lee Burke detective series, set in Louisiana, often greets Dave with "What's the haps?"