Saturday, August 24, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: A

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880-1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

A to Izzard = A to Z. “One man who don’t know nothin’ about prospectin’ goes an’ stumbles over a fortune an’ those who know it from A to Izzard goes ’round pullin’ in their belts.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20.

ace high = a poker hand consisting of an ace without a pair or better; excellent, superior. “I've mined for twenty year, and from Old Mexico to Alaska, but I never saw anything that was ace-high to that before.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

ace in the door = in poker, the ace appearing as the first card turned face up. “It was called by Higgins, who dealt once more, / When the Cherokee got ‘an ace in the door.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

acequia = irrigation canal. “Clear running water sparkled through the acequias that bordered the parade.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

across the divide = long gone; gotten rid of. “Hadn’t been for her these boys would have been across the divide hours ago.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

admire = to delight in, be glad/happy to. “‘I’ll go over,’ he says, ‘and just natu’lly settle that dude’s hash. I’d admire t’ do it.’” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

adobe dollar = an object of little value; the Mexican peso. “Hits ’dobe dollars t’ tlacos we’ll either stampoodle that bunch ’thout throwin’ lead or else get t’ dance on their graves.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

affinity = a person having an attraction for another. “He might meet an affinity; and there’s one of them lyin’ in wait for every man.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

against = before. “Ag’in’ spring you’ll know a little somethin’ about logs.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

aguardiente = generic name for alcoholic drinks between 29 and 60 percent alcohol; literally, burning water. “Riots of mounted men in the days when the desperadoes of the range came riding into town now and again for love of danger, or for lack of aguardiente.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

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

aigrette = a head ornament consisting of a white egret's feather or other decoration. “Her figure was perfection, her gowns of the quiet elegance of ultra-refinement always harmonious, as now, from the tip of the jeweled aigrette in her picture-hat to the points of her aristocratic shoe.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

air-tight = a wood-burning stove designed for efficient and controlled fuel use with stable heating and cooking temperatures. “He called one of the men from the cook-shack and bade him build a fire in the little air-tight.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

air-tights = canned goods, especially peaches and tomatoes. “One day Crawfish allows all alone by himse’f hell hop into Wolfville an’ buy some stuff for his camp,flour, whiskey, tobacker, air-tights, an’ sech.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

alcalde = a town official, e.g., mayor (from Spanish). “We-alls is organized for a shore-’nough town, an’ Jack Moore is a shore-’nough marshal, come with Enright for alcalde that a-way, an’ thar’s a heap of improvements.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Alcantara = a Spanish breed of horses. “‘I raised him myself,’ he went on, ‘and he’s standard bred, too, Daystar, out’n an Alcantara mare.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Aldrich, Thomas Bailey = prominent American poet, novelist, and magazine editor (1836-1907). “I feel as if we had died and our souls were meeting. You know Aldrich’s exquisite lines.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Alice-blue = a pale tint of azure favored by Teddy Roosevelt’s daugher, Alice. “Now the average peon, after absorbing all the visible supply of aguardiente, will hunt all over the map for the most outré place in which to sleep off his Alice-blue rabbits.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

all hunk = satisfactory, fine. “We’d bin up all night in the dance hall, / An’ closed up the shanty all hunk.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

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.

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.

all wool and a yard wide = genuine, not fake, honorable. “‘I never denied you much,’ he looked down at her. ‘But the man that gets you’s got to be all wool an’ a yard wide.’” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.

Allens Cherry Pectoral = a patent medicine. These advertising bulletins could be seen in heaps on the counter at the drug store especially in the spring months when Healey’s Bitters and Allens Cherry Pectoral were most needed to purify the blood.’”  Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

alley = a china marble described as yellowish-white streaked with wavy lines of bluish green.  “She had a regular strawberry-ice-cream-soda complexion, and her eyes looked like a couple of glass alleys with electric lights in ’em.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

allow = to say, concede, admit, believe, be of the opinion that. “I don’t allow Billy’s got the nerve to marry this yere Marie.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Allston cocktail = a very strong, somewhat bitter drink made with gin, peppermint schnapps, and lemon juice. “At the club I found the governor teaching Ogden a Cheyenne specialty—a particular drink, the Allston cocktail.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

almarjal = rain-fed boggy ground. Even the rude rancheros and tradesmen who were permitted to enter the walls in the exercise of their calling began to speak mysteriously of the beauty of this garden of the almarjal. Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

Alnaschar = a character in an Arabian fable who dreams of becoming rich from the sale of his glassware and then accidentally breaks all of it; cf. counting chickens before they are hatched. “It was there that he had beheld the star-like glitter, faint in the afternoon light, yet so necromantically conjured, of gold ‘in place,’ the free-milling lode which is the North’s dream of Alnaschar.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

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.

Alphonse and Gaston
Alphonse and Gaston = a comic strip by Frederick Burr Opper, featuring a bumbling pair of Frenchmen with a penchant for politeness; first appeared in William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, the New York Journal, on September 22, 1901. “He’s out to down me, and I know it. There ain’t no Alphonse and Gaston stuff when he comes boilin’ out, pullin’ his gun.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Alsatian bow = a large bow of wide ribbon, worn in the hair with the knot at the top of the head. “She rolled her hair from neck to brow in a ‘French twist’ and set on the top of it an ‘Alsatian bow,’ which stood like gigantic butterfly wings across her proud head.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

amen corner = the seats at the front of a church, for those calling out encouragement to the preacher with “amens.” “There’s them settin’ in the amen corner now, under the droppin’s of this here pulpit that has the strenk of Brother Joe Wyatt’s black bull Peter an’ the livers of chickens.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

amole = the root or other part of several chiefly western North American plants, such as agave and yucca, used as a substitute for soap. “They make ropes out of colts’ tails and rawhide, mold their own candles, and let the women wash with amole to save buying soap.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Enchanted Valley.”

aneroid = a barometer regulated by air pressure. “Gail swallowed tea and gnawed pemmican; drew the aneroid from Bob’s pocket; saw with a sinking, desolate heart that it registered but 13,000 feet.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Appeal to Reason = a political newspaper published 1895-1922, supporting the Farmers’ Alliance, the People’s Party, and, after 1901, the Socialist Party in America. “He bought an ‘Appeal to Reason’ from a stunted boy in a grey sweater.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

apple grunt = a dessert of baked apples and biscuit topping, served upside down. “They were eating their dessert,—the ‘apple grunt’ which Maude Eliza had eulogized the day before.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

arc light = light produced by an electric arc inside a bulb filled with gas, e.g. neon, argon, or xenon. “The man drew out a cigarette case that flashed in colors from the nearby arc-light.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

arctics = shoes designed to protect the feet in extreme cold temperatures. “Her arctics would make no noise, so she stole softly down stairs, through the dark kitchen and out into the street.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

argus = a very vigilant watcher (after Argos of Greek mythology, a person with 100 eyes). “Each man was his own argus. He was expected to know his enemies by instinct.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

arnica = an herbal remedy for muscle aches, inflammation, bruises, and wounds. “Oh I don’t think you need anything much. If you like, a little arnica—three parts water, and bathe that jaw.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

arrowweed = an evergreen shrub native to arid regions of the Southwest and Northern Mexico, where it often forms impenetrable thickets. “Lacking boards, or the means to manufacture them, he wove his table-top of arrow-weed and tough grasses from the cañon.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

asafetida = a foul-smelling medicinal herb used as a remedy for variety of complaints from stomach pains to flatulence. “Some take it up like a hot horseshoe, and hold it off at arm’s length like a druggist pouring tincture of asafetida in a bottle.” O. Henry, The Heart of the West.

astral lamp = an oil lamp constructed so that no shadow is cast upon the table by the flattened ring-shaped reservoir in which the oil is contained. “Tables covered with dainty bric-à-brac, and shelves with tempting books, lighted by several large and beautiful astral lamps.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

Aubusson tapestry = French tapestry made in the 17th and 18th centuries, with figures against backgrounds of greenery, stylized foliage, plants, and glimpses of towers and towns. “Mark seated himself on the edge of a stiff little sofa covered with faded Aubusson tapestry, and hunched his shoulders.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

author cards = Authors, a literary card game with portraits of 13 famous authors appearing on the cards: Twain, Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson, Shakespeare, Cooper, Irving, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Scott, Tennyson, Alcott, and Poe. “He says to me I might as well trade my old grays for a nice new checkerboard, or a deck of author cards.” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

Next: B (B&S - beard)

Sources: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and various online dictionaries

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Traditional western vs. frontier fiction


  1. I've actually heard of apple grunt. Have eaten it. Or something like it. Good stuff.

    1. If it's anything like the apple crsip you can get at the Oak Glen orchards near Beaumont, California, I'm willing to drive the hour it takes to get some.

  2. Great idea, Ron! I'm glad you're compiling this list of old terms used by the "early" Western writers, Thanks! I'll be referring to it more than once.

    1. I figure the project will take me most of the year. I've got a lot of words to include.

  3. Ron, a few terms I'm familiar with, like arnica, a homoeopathic remedy we keep handy at home to prevent clotting in the event of bumps and bruises, and asafetida, known as "hiing" in Hindi and used widely in Indian foods. I was also intrigued by the explanation of the terms "against" and "allow" though I've come across the latter.

    1. Homeopathic remedies are not so widely known here. Big Pharma would rather you bought their stuff.

    2. Ron, the demand for alternative medicine like homoeopathy is growing in India and I vouch for its efficacy. Allopathy is usually my second option. Big Pharma will always be streets ahead, though.

  4. Great you're putting these online. It's a great resource. Thanks!

  5. I have also seen "airtight" used as a slang term for canned goods (peaches and tomatoes, per the Wolfville stories).

  6. I am going to see if I can pull off "from A to Izzard" today. Time to bring it back.