Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 64

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of forgotten and obsolete terms and expressions 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 Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, The Dictionary of Victorian Slang, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from James B. Hendryx’s The Promise, Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden, and Jack London’s A Daughter of the Snows. Some I could not track down are at the bottom of the page.

Man with alpenstock
all standing = suddenly, unexpectedly. “He turned into the blankets all-standing, and as he dozed off Vance could hear him muttering.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

alpenstock = a long, iron-tipped staff used by hikers and mountain climbers. “She waved her alpenstock, and as he doffed his cap, rounded the brink and disappeared.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

“Ben Bolt” = a traditional song based on a poem written by Thomas Dunn English in 1848, set to music by Nelson Kneass in 1848. “She contributed her quota by singing ‘Annie Laurie’ and ‘Ben Bolt.’” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows. [Listen below.]

between blankets = sleep. “Corliss yawned in reply. He had been on trail all day and was yearning for between-blankets.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

block system = a system of railroad signaling that divides the track into sections and allows no train to enter a section that is not completely clear. “Little things, insignificant in themselves, but in the light of his present understanding, looming large as the danger signals of a well-ordered block system.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

cash boy = in large retail stores, a messenger who carried customers’ money from salespersons to the cashier and returned with the change. “He was interested in the triumphs of these cash boys who had become famous, though he had no mind for the cash-boy stage.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

catch a crab = in rowing, to make a faulty stroke by failing to make contact with the water or plunging the oar blade in too deeply. “The boatman shot nervily across her bow, and just as he was clear, unfortunately, caught a crab.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

drill / drilling = a fabric in various weights used for work clothing and uniforms, e.g. khaki. “Her short skirt of heavy drilling came only to her knees.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

dump = a pile or heap of rock or ore. “In a single sitting, she gambled away thirty thousand of Jack Dorsey’s dust,—Dorsey, with two mortgages already on his dump!” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

embonpoint = plumpness, stoutness. “They were met at the door by a plump-faced lady of ample proportions who was evidently fighting a losing battle with a tendency toward embonpoint.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

“Flying Cloud, The” = a traditional narrative song. “She was coy, and only after Bishop had rendered the several score stanzas of ‘Flying Cloud’ did she comply.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows. [Listen below.]

forty-five ninety = a round of ammunition introduced in 1877 by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. “‘Keep a constant eye on the grub.’ ‘And on the forty-five-nineties,’ Captain McGregor rumbled back as he passed out the door.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

Boy, single gallows, 1840s
gallows / gallus = a pair or one of a pair of suspenders (braces), to support the trousers. “A full-lipped, full-blooded little urchin, his trousers held up by a single gallows, stood beside her.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

glaireous = like egg white. “His face became a dull, bloodless gray, glistening glaireously with clammy sweat.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

go cart = a hand cart; a one- two- or four-wheeled vehicle that can be pushed by a person. “Other men, exulting secretly, piled their goods on two-wheeled go-carts and pulled out blithely enough, only to stall at the first spot where the great round boulders invaded the trail.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

“In the Baggage Coach Ahead” = a sentimental song popular at the turn of the last century, written in 1896 by African American composer Gussie L. Davis (1863-1899). “For nine months I have heard nothing but ‘The Baggage Coach Ahead’ and ‘She is My Baby’s Mother.’” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden. [Listen below.]

jade = a bad-tempered or disreputable woman. “’Tis said Vincent is over-thick with a jade down in the town.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

long eared = clever. “He questioned the soundness of Nora’s philosophy and swore by his Puritan gods that Torvald was the longest-eared jack in two hemispheres.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

oyster = a close-mouthed person. “‘Was he always a good deal of an oyster?’ he asked abruptly. ‘He was terribly shy as a boy.’” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

Peterborough = a wooden canoe manufactured from 1892 in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. “I know that I, Frona, in the flesh, am here, in a Peterborough paddling for dear life with two men.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

pocket miner = a prospector or miner who extracted ore in small increments to pay expenses and make a modest income. “While the Scot did not lose much love for the pocket-miner, he was well aware of his grit.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

Rogers Group sculpture
Rogers Group = one of the scores of mass-produced cast plaster statuettes by American sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904), popular in homes during the 19th century. “They bore it into a large, unheated room that smelled of dampness and disuse and furniture polish, and set it down under a hanging lamp ornamented with jingling glass prisms and before a ‘Rogers group’ of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

scamp = to do something in a perfunctory or inadequate way. “The Siberians have not yet learned to scamp their work, you know.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

sea biscuit = hardtack, a very hard unsalted biscuit or bread, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. “The sea-biscuit had been crumbled into chips and fragments and generously soaked by the rain till it had become a mushy, pulpy mass of dirty white.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

smilax = a slender vine with glossy foliage, popular as a floral decoration. “They bore it into a large, unheated room that smelled of dampness and disuse and furniture polish, and set it down under a hanging lamp ornamented with jingling glass prisms and before a ‘Rogers group’ of John Alden and Priscilla, wreathed with smilax.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

snakes = alcoholic hallucinations, delirium tremens. “His groping brain grasped at the idea, and it gave him strength—better the ‘snakes’ than that!” James Hendryx, The Promise.

sourdough = an old hand, an old-timer adapted to the country. “She’ll be a regular sourdough before spring; won’t want to come out.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

sun picture = a photograph. “He had not been wise enough to lug a camera into the country, but none the less, by a yet subtler process, a sun-picture had been recorded somewhere on his cerebral tissues.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

“Take Back Your Gold” = a popular parlor song from 1897. “She sang ‘Take Back Your Gold’ with touching effect, which brought a fiery moisture into the eyes of the Fraction King.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows. For more about this song’s gold-rush connections, visit Jeff Smith’s blog, Soapy Smith’s Soap Box[Listen below.]

tarrier = someone slow to action. “‘Dig! Ye tarriers!’ roared Fallon as his heavy mittens gouged into the snow.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

titubate = to stagger, reel, rock; to stammer, stutter. “The Virgin had sprawled head and shoulders on the table, amid overturned mugs and dripping lees, and Cornell was titubating over her, hiccoughing.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

toff = a rich or upper-class person. “From her limited experience she had been led to understand that it was not good form among ‘toffs’ to shake hands.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

unship = to remove an oar (or other object) from its fixed or regular position. “The boatman had unshipped his oars in time, but his small craft groaned under the pressure and threatened to collapse.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

Whitehall = a popular rowboat manufactured in New York for ferrying goods to and from ships in the harbor. “The Indian helmsman drove the point of his paddle into the boatman’s chest and hurled him backward into the bottom of the Whitehall.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

The rest more or less stumped me. Anyone with an idea, please feel free to comment below.

bakneesh = “Festoons of brilliant red bakneesh encircled the room and depended from the chains of the big-swinging lamps.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

dummy auction = “The ladies busied themselves with the care of the two rooms, with useless needlework, and with dummy auction, varying the monotony with daily excursions into the near-by forest in quest of spruce-gum and pine-cones.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

Dutch fireplace = “Two Dutch fireplaces were roaring full with huge back-logs of spruce.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

mourning comb = “The daughter—the tall, raw-boned woman in crêpe, with a mourning comb in her hair which curiously lengthened her long face—sat stiffly upon the sofa.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

sniffit = “I hope I never get in love and act like a couple of fools. Now, I bet she’ll marry that sniffit, and he’ll marry Blood River Jack’s sister.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon (1907)


  1. Jade is about the only one I've heard from this list. Have used it myself in a story set in the past.

    1. Charles, I figured many readers would know the word but included it because I like the sound of it.

  2. I daresay, them two songs, Th Baggage Coach Ahead and Take Back Your Gold made me want to drown me tears in a bucket of beer. This series of posts on The Old West's use of certain terms and words has been very enlightening, sometimes funny, and always interesting. Thanks, Ron.

    1. They did love their sentimental songs. Thanks, Oscar.

  3. I think "dummy auction" must be a card game—I think I've seen both words used as card-playing terms.

    Hmm...I always thought "all standing" meant "as is"...i.e. going to bed fully dressed.

    1. I'm thinking "dummy auction" is maybe bridge, but I could not find a reference connecting them. You could be right about all-standing. Looking everywhere, I couldn't come up with anything better than "suddenly," which could imply "as is." Thanks, Elisabeth.

  4. 'Dummy auction' is sometimes used for a 3-handed form of whist/bridge where a dummy- open- hand is laid out and players bid to play with it as their partner.
    'The flying Cloud' isn't a shanty but a narrative song- the hero- usually an Irishman named Hollander- runs away to sea and via slave-trading becomes a pirate gets hanged.

  5. Mourning combs are those tall decorative hair ornaments, usually made of tortoiseshell, that stopped being fashionable in the 1850s.

    I am wondering if a Dutch fireplace is the kind that was faced with blue and white tiles. Very popular in Holland, Germany, and Austria in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  6. Wanted to add -- Curwood refers to bakneesh a few times in his books. From content it appears to be a vine with a red flower.

    1. Hello! Does anyone know what bakneesh is?

    2. See above. It's a vine with a red flower.

    3. Thanks. I see.
      But the question is whether this is a real vine with red flowers or invented by James Curwood. Does someone knows the etymology of this word or has a picture? What is its scientific classification? You know I’m translating Curwood’s novels into Ukrainian and can’t translate this word.

    4. James Hendryx refers to it as well in one of his books (The Promise). Either they invented the word between the two of them, or it's an indigenous name for an existing plant. One possibility is the kinnikinnick which is red/pink and spreads rapidly.

      I found it in this publication online:

      Have you considered contacting the Environmental Department of the Yukon territories and asking for assistance? They must surely have a First Nations botanist on staff who can provide some information.

      Let us know what you find out! Best of luck with the translations.

    5. Thank you so much. I will try to find out and will write here.

    6. I queried a Canadian internet acquaintance. Her reply:

      Well, I'd say the message is right, it's a smoking/ceremonial mixture. The plants mentioned here ( are common and have a wide growth, some varieties which grow in the far north, and most have similar common names (squashberry, bearberry, nannyberry, and the like.)

      But, it's also a low growing plant. (go down to the section on pink flowers)

      Here's a map of aboriginal lands in the Yukon just so you can see how interesting tracking down a commonly used word in different languages, some with different alphabets.

    7. Thank you so much for information.

    8. That is the answer from Michele Campbell, from Government of Yukon:
      We have tried to find the answer for you and have asked the First Nations Language instructor as well, since it sounds like their language. From what we have gathered, it must be a word meaning ‘fireweed’, our official territorial plant. We googled it, of course, and came up with the same interesting information as you. Good luck!

    9. So...not a "made up" word at all. Thanks for getting back with the results of your question to the Yukon authorities.

  7. As Shay said, it would be a hair comb. Mourning jewelry was quite popular in the Victorian era. Just wearing black clothing wouldn't do - women had entire ensembles for mourning. You could even weave the hair of the dead person into elaborate decorative designs for jewelry and art.

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