Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 51

Montana cowboys, c1910

Here’s another set of terms gleaned from early western fiction. 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, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Ada Woodruff Anderson’s The Heart of the Red Firs, about settlers in the backwoods around Puget Sound, Gilbert Parker’s Northern Lights, a collection of stories about the Saskatchewan River valley, and Samuel Merwin's The Road-Builders, about the construction of a railway in West Texas

Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “put a head on,” “dispute the palm,” “red trail,” “hash and clothes,” “rope twister,” “Puss in the Ring,” “prairie whisper,” “forty-two degrees,” “snap mule,” or “axe of sacrifice,” leave a comment below.

Policeman and traffic violator
blue = a soldier, police officer. “Mr. Carhart was very quiet and considerate and businesslike, but he had a streak of blue in him.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

boneset = a North American plant of the daisy family that bears clusters of small flowers and is used in herbal medicine. “She handed the bowl of boneset tea. ‘Take it; it’ll do you good, Cassy,’ she added.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

by Josh and by Joan = a mild expletive. “By Josh and by Joan, but it’s a shame, a dirty shame, it is!” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

cariole = a small, open, two- or four-wheeled carriage drawn by one horse. “He told him the news and saw Jacques jump into the cariole and drive away.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

chase-me-Charley = a high jump game for horses and their riders. “He’s a chase-me-Charley, come-and-kiss-me tiger from the zoo.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

combination car = a railway car containing two or more compartments used for different purposes. “They run a combination car each way every day—two cars when business is brisk.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

Coureur de bois, 1889
coureur de bois = a woodsman or trader of French origin. “Factors of the Hudson’s Bay Company, coureurs de bois, and voyageurs, had come among them at times.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights. [At right, Pierre Le Royer]

cut and come again = to help oneself as often as one likes. “It was like Clint an’ me cuttin’ and comin’ again off the loaf an’ the knuckle-bone of ven’son.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

drappie = intoxicating drink. “Haven’t got a wee bit drappie, have you?” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

Dutchman’s pipe = a common name for some unrelated flowering plants, which have flowers or stems resembling pipes. “There isn’t enough sunshine out in front for anything but the honeysuckle and the Dutchman’s pipe.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

ell = a lean-to. “This old bar, the last remaining bit of furniture in the place, guarded the sagging door of a small ell evidently once used as a tap-room.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

flaw = a squall of wind, a short storm. “He sprang to his feet, spluttering, clutching at the helm, losing his foothold on the slanting deck, while the Phantom raced down before the sudden flaw.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

flyaway = a flighty or frivolous person. “She was a little jealous, that explained things, and of that flyaway, there in the other room.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

gated = to be confined to a school or college’s grounds. “He hated getting out of bed, and he was constantly gated for morning chapel.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

golden glow = a tall plant cultivated for its large, yellow double flower heads. “He’d better screen the fence with golden glow, set out pretty thick the whole way, between the nasturtiums and the fence.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

highbinder = a corrupt politician. “On his way through Chinatown he had noticed Stratton entering the house of a certain merchant and highbinder.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

jerickety = a mild expletive. “‘Oh, magnificent!—magnificent!—jerickety!’ he said into the sky above him.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

jugglery = artful trickery. “It’s jugglery, the whole business; there ain’t anything honest about it.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

knocker = a stunningly attractive person. “Sergeant Foyle, oh, he’s a knocker from the West.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

knuckleduster = a metal guard worn over the knuckles in fighting to increase the effect of blows. “There’d been a strike in the mine, an’ my friend had took it in hand with knuckledusters on.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

lighter = a barge or other unpowered boat used to transfer cargo to and from ships in harbor. “A lighter grounded on Alki Point; he has been helping to float her.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs. [At right, painting by George Caleb Bingham, 1847]

luff = to bring the head of a ship nearer to the wind. “Mason leaned forward with a low exclamation; then, no longer able to hold himself, he lifted his voice in a hoarse shout. ‘Luff, luff ’er.’” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

marrowfat pea = a mature pea allowed to dry out in the field before harvesting. “A heart no bigger than a marrowfat pea—selfishness, all self.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

mignonette = an herb with spikes of small, fragrant greenish flowers. “She gathered more from the long box on the edge of the veranda, and with a handful of mignonette, arranged them in a crystal bowl for the center of the board.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

mikonaree = a missionary to the Indians. “Till then he had looked and borne himself like any other traveler, unrecognized as a parson or ‘mikonaree.’” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

moon along = to wander around lost in thought. “Got to thinking in the desert, and sort of willing things to come to pass, and mooning along, you and the sky and the vultures?” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

painter = a short rope or chain by which an anchor is held fast to the side of a ship when not in use. “The old sailor cast off the painter and gave the great even push which propelled the craft out between docks.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

parfleche = a Native American rawhide bag, typically used for holding dried meats and pemmican. “‘The Indian life is to the white life as the parfleche pouch to—to this.’ She laid her hand upon a purse of delicate silver mesh hanging at her waist.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

plucked = to be flunked for failure to pass an exam. “He had always done just enough to prevent him being plucked.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

poudre day = a winter weather condition in which there is a fine, white, powdered frost in the air. “A day like this is called a poudre day; and woe to the man who tempts it unthinkingly, because the light makes the delicate mist of frost shine like silver.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

root hog or die = to work extremely hard or face inevitable failure. “‘It was root, hog, or die with me, Sally,’ he continued, ‘and I rooted.’” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

saw-off = a deadlock, stalemate. “What’s up? Some one getting married—or a legacy, or a saw-off? Why, what a lot of Sunday-go-to-meeting folks to be sure.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

shin plaster = a money-note worth a quarter of a dollar. “Shin-plasters are what I want. A friend of mine has caught his leg in a trap.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

ship a sea = to be awash with water coming over the side of a boat. “While he watched her, shouting repeatedly, against reason, the dugout shipped a sea that all but swamped her.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

shooting box = a small country house providing accommodation for a shooting party during hunting season. “It seems Stratton used this shooting box out here to cache his dope in.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

Slip switch
sixes and sevens = a state of total confusion or disarray. “Then things’ll go to sixes and sevens, as they did after Sophy died.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

slip = a railway switch, where one pair of tracks crosses another, allowing a train to change from one track to the other. “One line of wagons—laden with scrapers, ‘slips’ and ‘wheelers,’ tents and camp equipage, the timbers and machinery of a pile-driver, and a thousand and one other things—was little by little extricating itself from the tangle.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

slow bell = an order to a ship’s engine to proceed slowly. “The revenue vessel steamed on under slow bells toward Seattle.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

Sailing smack
smack = a sailing boat used for fishing during the 19th century. “The rival notes of an accordion floated over from a passing fishing-smack.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

stepper = a horse with a brisk, attractive walking gait. “There ain’t never be’n no sech stepper in this here deestrict, leavin’ out Colonel.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

stoop = a fool, idiot. “He had stepped down from his scarlet-coated dignity, from the place of guardian and guide to civilization, into the idleness of a tavern stoop.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

strapper = a person performing hard, physical labor. “The picked men of the iron squad, muscular, deep chested, were working side by side with the Mexicans and the negroes, as also were the spikers and strappers and the men of the tie squad.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

swab = an unpleasant person. “Can’t you see what a swab he is, Laura?” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

syringa = a genus of about 20-25 species of flowering woody plants in the olive family, native to woodland and scrub, including lilacs. “Maidenhair unfolded pale canopies over the shallow boxes on the edge of the balcony, where were planted sweet peas, and a syringa, supported by a pillar.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs. [At right, painting by Edmund Leighton, 1901]

walk Spanish = to follow an unwelcome order. “He’d meet your representative like a gentleman, and step around lively and walk Spanish for you, if you so much as winked.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders (1905)


  1. Cariole and flyaway I've heard. Not sure where.

  2. Tom Waits has a song called "Walking Spanish down the hall", about a convict's last walk. . .to the executioner.
    Shin plasters were in common use in the early and mid 19th century America. They could be worth various amounts, and tended to be worth less the further away they traveled from where they were issued. People were wary of counterfeits. Also, banks went under a lot and the shin plasters would become worthless. They were so named because they looked like a type of bandage used to treat leg sores.

    1. Sean, "walking Spanish" seems to have had a variety of meanings, depending on the context. It also means simply to get the "bum's rush." I thought the use of "shin plaster" was funny; it's a play on words there. The source defined the word in the next sentence as "worth 25 cents," and your added comment makes sense. Being paper currency, its market value would vary. Thanks.

  3. "Root hog or die" was popular in the 30's."knuckle-dusters" was what we called "brass knucks."

    1. I was familiar with "knuckle-dusters," too, but wondered if it was just me, so I included it.

    2. It's a term not used in any western that I recall in fist-fighting scenes. I think it was more popular in mystery stories and some boxing stories.

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