Friday, August 24, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 41

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms gleaned from early western stories. 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 Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville, about life in an Arizona cow town. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “bark at a knot,” “kettle-tender,” or “nigh-swing mule,” leave a comment below.

ace high = a poker hand consisting of an ace without a pair or better. “I never yet holds better than ace-high when the stake’s a lady.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

all of a bump = suddenly. “It all of a bump like a buckin’ pony strikes Jaybird that he’s missin’ a onusual chance to be buoyant.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

black snake = a long tapering braided whip of rawhide or leather. “I reaches across an’ belts him some abrupt between the y’ears with the butt of a shot-filled black-snake.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

blanket mate = a working partner, who may share the same bedroll. “The artillery is a case of s’prise, the most experienced gent in Wolfville not lookin’ for no gun-play between folks who’s been pards an’ blanket-mates for years.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

cat hop = in five-card draw poker, a long shot draw requiring two desired cards to make a hand. “Thar’s nothin’ left in the box but beans, coffee, an’ beans. It’s a cat-hop, but it can’t be he’ped none.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

check rack = the tray that hold the chips for a game. “He’s sufferin’ an’ has got to be recovered if it takes the entire check-rack.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

crawl someone’s hump = to attack, assault. “If you insists on pushin’ along through here I’ll turn in an’ crawl your hump some.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

cross-lots = by a short cut (across the fields or vacant lots instead of by the road or sidewalk). “When they can’t find no gate to come at you, they ups an’ pushes down a panel of fence, an’ lays for you, cross-lots.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

curl up = to kill. “The old hold-up is on the mule an’ goin’ hell-bent when I curls him up.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Green corn dance, Santa Fe, New Mexico
dead card = a card out of play, such as discards, or one involved in a foul, such as falling off the table. “When Peets quits a little thing like consumption an’ shoves his chair back, you’alls can gamble a gent’s health, that a-way, is on a dead kyard.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

frill = fringe. “Four days later we’re in camp by a water-hole in the frill of the foot-hills.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

green corn dance = a Native American ceremonial dance expressing supplication or thanksgiving for the corn/maize crop. “This Colonel of mine don’t get no pianer; don’t round-up no music of his own; but stands pat an’ pulls off reels, an’ quadrilles, an’ green-corn dances to Hamilton’s music goin’ on next door.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Hawken rifle
Hawken rifle = a black powder long rifle used on the prairies and in the Rocky Mountains during the early frontier days; synonymous with the “plains rifle,” the buffalo gun, and the fur trapper’s gun. “The last I sees of the old man he’s buckin’ an’ pitchin’ an’ tossin’, an’ the females a-holdin’ of him, an’ he reachin’ to get a Hawkins’s rifle as hangs over the door.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

hone = to pine for, yearn after. “Mail-bags packs more grief than joy, an’ I ain’t honin’ for no hand in that game whatever.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

hull = a saddle. “It looks like we’re cinchin’ the hull onto the wrong bronco.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

hunky = excellent, satisfactory, in good condition. “An’ Billy ain’t none back’ard admittin’ he is, an’ allows onhesitatin’ it’s the hunkiest baby in Arizona.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

I’m a Chinaman = derogatory reference to Chinese, expressing surprise and disbelief. “‘I’m a Chinaman,’ says Billy, ‘if it ain’t a kid!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

jim crow = small-time, low-class. “You can gamble thar wouldn’t be no jim-crow marshal go pirootin’ ’round, losin’ no eye of mine an’ getting’ away with it.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

line out = to leave, depart. “I has only time to make camp, saddle up, an’ line out of thar, to keep from bein’ burned before my time.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

lop = to bend. “I nacherally wrestles him down an’ lops one of his front laigs over his antlers.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

marker = something worthy to be compared. “The brotherly views them two gents entertains ain’t a marker to Jim Willis an’ me.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

on velvet = secure, cheerful, enjoying a life without problems. “I’m on velvet; how’s your laigs standin’ the pace, Jim?” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

play horse = to fool around, indulge in horseplay. “It shorely tries me the way them aliens plays hoss.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

point out = to leave, cancel out, die. “The one of us who draws a black bean is to p’int out after the lieutenant.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Cigar factory workers, Tampa, Florida, 1893
principe = Cuban cigar, Principe de Gales (Prince of Wales), manufactured from 1869 in Key West, then Tampa, Florida. “Again the Old Cattleman relapsed into silence and the smoke of the principe.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

reach = the connecting member between the front and rear axles of a wagon. “At last I ups an’ make a hammock outen a Navajo blanket, which is good an’ strong, an’ swings the Colonel to the reach of the trail wagon.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

ring in = to substitute fraudulently. “You-all can’t ring in Mexicans an’ snake no play on us.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

“Sandy Land” = traditional song; full title, “Great Big Taters in Sandy Land.” “S’pose we-alls gives him ‘The Dyin’ Ranger’ an’ ‘Sandy Land’ for an hour or so, an’ see.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville. Listen here.

Spanish bayonet
shorthorn = tenderfoot, newcomer. “Let the shorthorn go sleep onder a mesquite-bush; it’ll do him good a whole lot.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

skin = to glance at, examine. “I’m skinnin’ my kyards a bit interested anyhow, bein’ in the hole myse’f.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Spanish bayonet = a tall yucca of the southwestern United States and Mexico having a woody stem and stiff sword-like pointed leaves and a large cluster of white flowers. “I goes wanderin’ out back of the Tub of Blood, where it’s lonesome, an’ camps down by a Spanish-bayonet.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

spraddled out = in a confused state. “This yere domestic uprisin’ of Dave’s wife breaks on Wolfville as onexpected as a fifth ace in a poker deck; it leaves the camp all spraddled out.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

stack up = to present oneself (cf. piling up one’s chips at poker). “Occasionally some of us sorter tries to stack up for Jim an’ figger out where he stands with the game.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Frock coat
surtout = a man’s overcoat in the style of a frock coat. “It’s that youthful party in the black surtoot who comes pesterin’ me a moment ago about the West bein’, as he says, a roode an’ irreligious outfit.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

swallow fork = an earmark on an animal made by a triangular cut removing the tip of the ear. “I’m workin’ a bunch of cattle; Cross-K is the brand; y’ear-marks a swallow-fork in the left, with the right y’ear onderhacked.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

tail a pony = a rough practical joke played by one rider on another, as explained in the following quote. “It’s ridin’ up from the r’ar an’ takin’ a half-hitch on your saddle-horn with the tail of another gent’s pony, an’ then spurrin’ by an’ swappin’ ends with the whole outfit,—gent, hoss, an’ all.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

tens up = in poker, having two pair where the higher pair are tens. “I tharfore makes as an order that yereafter thar’s to be a rake on tens-up or better, showed, to make a fund to back this play.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

trail out = death. “I don’t like a knife none myse’f as a trail out.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

turn in = to stop doing something. “If you insists on pushin’ along through here I’ll turn in an’ crawl your hump some.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

underhack = an earmark on an animal made by cutting up on the underside of the ear about one inch. “I’m workin’ a bunch of cattle; Cross-K is the brand; y’ear-marks a swallow-fork in the left, with the right y’ear onderhacked.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Wall tent
vibrate = to pass back and forth. “Billy, who’s filed away a quart of fire-water in his interior by now, is vibratin’ between the Red Light an’ the dancehall.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

wall tent = a canvas tent with four vertical walls. “The Britons has got up a wall tent an’ is shorely havin’ a high an’ lavish time.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Team of horses,wheelers on the right
wheelers = in freighting and stagecoaches, the horses or mules nearest the wheels. “I’ve hobbled this Jerry mule an’ his mate—the other wheeler—an’ throwed ’em loose.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

worm fence = a rail fence consisting of a zigzag of interlocking rails. “That Remorse pony arches his back like a hoop, sticks his nose between his knees, an’ gives way to sech a fit of real old worm-fence buckin’ as lands Slim Jim on his sombrero.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday music, Sons of the Pioneers


  1. Another great batch, Ron. "Cat hop" was also used in the game of faro, to indicate that two of three cards left in the dealing box during the last turn were of the same denomination.

    "On velvet" was also used by gamblers; a player who'd won back his initial stake and was gambling only with his winnings was said to be "playing on velvet."

    1. Given the contents of the food box, I'm guessing the reference is more directly to faro, as you suggest. Thanks, JR.

  2. "Kettle tender" sounds like a cook in a soup kitchen. A "nigh-swing mule", I think, is the nearest of a team to the driver/handler that he uses to make turns. I've heard the expression used for a team of horses.

    1. Oscar, thanks for the input. From the driver's point of view, would the nigh horse/mule be to the right or left?

  3. I wonder if there were also racist implications to the use of "Jim Crow" in the West as it was in the South?

    btw, it took me several tries to get the verification right!

    1. I'm sure the racial implication was there, too. Having trouble with verification these days myself.