Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 55

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people 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 Effie Graham’s The Passin’-On Party and Francis Lynde’s The Grafters. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “government drops,” “juggler’s rose,” “P.S.M.,” or “tail twister,” leave a comment below.

bedstaff = a wooden pin on the sides of the bedstead to hold the bedclothes from slipping on either side. “I put two and two together in the twinkling of a bedstaff.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

biff = a blow, slap, punch. “But Hawk’s next biff was more to the purpose. He came down here with Halkett’s chief clerk, whom he had hauled out of bed, and two policemen.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Rudyard Kipling
Black Curse of Shielygh = a fearsome malediction uttered in “The Courting of Dinah Shadd,” a story in Rudyard Kipling’s Life’s Handicap (1891). “Hawk smote the air with a clenched fist and called down the Black Curse of Shielygh, or its modern equivalent, on all the fates subversive of well-laid plans.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Blackstone and Chitty = a law book, Commentaries on the Laws of England, written by William Blackstone, first published in the 1760s; the 1826 edition with notes by J. Chitty was often reprinted in America. “By virtue of his diploma, and three years of country practice in the New Hampshire county town where his father before him had read Blackstone and Chitty, he had his window on the fourth floor of the Farquhar Building lettered ‘Attorney and Counselor at Law’.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

blandander = to cajole with flattery; to talk nonsense. “I know where I’m goin’, an’ that’s more thin you know, ye blandhanderin’ divil!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

bread-tackle = food and drink. “It was the one that afterward became the bread-tackle in the famine time.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

by grabs! = a mild oath for “by God.” “Three groans for the land syndicates, alien mortgagees, and the Western Pacific Railroad, by grabs! and to hell with ’em!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Sugar casters
caster/castor = a small container with holes in the top, used for sprinkling sugar or pepper. “I feel honored; there’s my mother’s old silver castor.” Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party.

Castilla = a Havana cigar. “I prefer the pipe myself, for a steady thing; but at this time of night a light Castilla fits me pretty well.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

chloral hydrate = a widely used sedative in the late 19th century; the composition of "knock out" drops [as Richard Wheeler notes below] used in Mickey Finns. “Kent was walking the floor of his room, trying vainly to persuade himself that virtue was its own reward, and wondering if a small dose of chloral hydrate would be defensible under the cruel necessity for sleep.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

cinch = to impose upon; to defeat. “I have it on pretty good authority that the ring is cinching the other companies right and left.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

cold-plucked = bold, nervy. “Did you say that? You’re a cold-plucked one, Kent, and I’m coming to admire you.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Ottoman dragoman
dragoman = an interpreter, guide, diplomat, mediator. “‘You are the pink of dragomans,’ she said. ‘Don’t you want to go and smoke?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

grass cloth = a loosely woven fabric made with grass or vegetable fibers. “The little den behind the drawing-room had but one occupant besides the rear-end brakeman—a tall, saturnine man in a gray grass-cloth duster.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

halt camp = a stop on a route, a train station. “Its beginnings as a halt camp ran back to the days of the later Mormon migrations across the thirsty plain.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

hedge up = to confine, obstruct. “The way to the smoking-den on the floor above was hedged up.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

hide hair and horns = completely. “You rec’lect what he said in them Civic League talks o’ his: said these politicians had stole the road, hide, hair an’ horns.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

hold fast = a device used on a workbench to fix a work piece to the top or side of the bench while it is being worked. “One of his professional hold-fasts—it was the one that afterward became the bread-tackle in the famine time—was his position as local attorney for the railway company.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

houseroom = accommodation; lodging; space in a house. “The town office of the Blue Jay was just across the street, and he took her there and begged house-room and a chair for her.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Balcony, 1787
Juliet balcony = a shallow window balcony that does not protrude from the building. “This was Unk’s name for the small Juliet balcony, which had been give him when the old Ludderman house was displaced by the new one.” Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party.

junto = a clique that seeks power through intrigue. “Gaston the strenuous was still no more than a lusty infant among the cities of the brown plain when the broom broke and the junto was born.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Cophetua, maid
King Cophetua = an ugly legendary king who marries a pretty beggar maid and makes her his queen. “Elinor would go to her wedding with Ormsby as the beggar maid went to King Cophetua.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

leaguer = the camp of a besieging army. “Making the most of the present leaguer of a woman’s heart—a citadel whose capitulation was not to be compassed by mere money-might.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

leg it = to run. “No stops, or Tischer will run him down. Leg it! He’s half-way down the yard, now!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

long purse = wealth, riches. “He made the most of such opportunities for the exercising of his gift as came to one for whom the long purse leveled most barriers.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

ordinary = public house, tavern, restaurant. “We meet in the ordinary at the Camelot. You’ll be there?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Ormolu clock
ormolu = any of several copper and zinc or tin alloys resembling gold in appearance and used to ornament furniture, moldings, architectural details, and jewelry. “Ormsby was looking past her to the old-fashioned ormolu clock on the high mantel, comparing the time with his watch.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

parasang = an ancient Persian unit of distance, about four miles (six kilometers). “‘Are you any nearer to it than you were when you began?’ ‘A good many parasangs.'” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

parterre = a level space in a yard occupied by an ornamental arrangement of flowerbeds. “Elinor left her chair and went to the window, which looked down on the sanatorium, the ornate parterre, and the crescent driveway.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

penwiper = a cloth, or other material, for cleaning ink from a pen. “It’s penwipers—two of ’em. Made ’em ourselves over a Millie’s this morning.” Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party.

pink = fashionable, exclusive. “‘You are the pink of dragomans,’ she said. ‘Don’t you want to go and smoke?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

pound sand = to engage in a futile activity; to go away. “When it comes to the in-fighting he hasn’t sense enough to pound sand.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

pursy = fat, obese. “Ormsby recognized the burly person of the governor and the florid face and pursy figure of the receiver.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

settle = a wooden bench with a high back and arms, typically incorporating a box under the seat. “Griggs got upon his feet, yawning and stretching before he dropped back into his corner of the wooden settle.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shallop = a small open boat propelled by oars or sails and used in shallow waters. “Isn’t that a good bit like saying that the shallop must see to it that the wind doesn’t blow too hard for it?” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Shallop, c1850
shawl strap = a pair of leather straps fitted to a handle for carrying a rolled up shawl, steamer rug, parcel, or baggage. “I’ll go back with you and help out with the shawl-strap things.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shillalah = to cudgel, club. “With us it has been a sort of Donnybrook Fair: the agricultural voter has shillalahed the head he could reach most easily.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

shin = move quickly. “You kin shin out de alley winder ef you sees ’em comin’.” Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party.

sounder = an electromagnetic device used in telegraphy to convert electric signals sent over wires into audible sounds. “The Juniberg man gave Oleson his release and the order to proceed with due care while the sounder was still clicking a further communication from headquarters.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Columbia Electric tonneau, 1901
tonneau = the back seats of an automobile; a motor or horse-drawn vehicle, with rear seating for passengers. “Ormsby waited, and a little later was whisked away to the hotel in the tonneau of the guests’ automobile.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

wiper = the most junior member of a railroad engine crew; cleaner of engine parts and engineer’s assistant. “The wiper on the window seat yelped like a kicked dog and went sickly green under his mask of grime.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Worth gown, 1913
Worth, Charles Frederick = English-born Paris designer (1825-1895), known for his elegant gowns. “I’d wear Worth gowns and be lapped in luxury for the next ten years at the very least.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Effie Graham, The Passin'-On Party (1912)


  1. Chloral hydrate was famously the knockout drop that went into Mickey Finns, and also into Barbary Coast drinks that resulted in the victim being Shanghaied.

    1. You are right, Richard. I should have included that.

  2. When I was a kid my dad used to say, "he didn't have enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole," I was an adult before I figured out what the meaning was.
    Another good list

  3. I seem to remember (but I couldn't tell you from which old Western it sprang) that a tail-twister was someone who encouraged a sullen bronc to activity by grabbing the tail and giving it a vicious twist. Someone who spurred a reluctant human on in a cruel or painful fashion was also known as a tail-twister.

    Dang. Now I'm going to have to go find the source.

    1. You are right about that. The context for this particular use was the phrase "Three cheers and tail twister."

  4. hold fast I've heard. sometimes spelled as one word. or with a hyphen. Most of the other stuff here is brand new to me. Cool