Saturday, September 21, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B (boom - buck)

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.”

boom = to promote, extol. “He was too new to flaunt his authority, and boom a reformation, before he felt sure of its chance in the place.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

boom stick = one of the logs fastened together to make a boom to hold floating logs. “Oh, the back-breaking job of boring boom-sticks when your auger keeps biting into stubborn knots!” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

boomer = a booster for settling lands, especially Indian lands, before it became legal. “I always was such a poor hand afoot that I passed up that country, and here I am a ’boomer’.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

bootblack tough = a criminal who starts out as a petty crook. “But the men we were after were not ‘boot-black toughs,’ as the West calls such characters who have graduated through picking pockets, knuckle-dusting—in groups—late homing merchants in alleys, breaking open freight cars, to shooting clerk and teller in some small mining camp.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

booze clerk = bartender. “He congratulated himself that he had filled his pocket from the booze-clerk’s sugar-bowl before the mix came.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

boss = the best, excellent. “You don’t want to go in there. We’ll show yer the boss place in Market Street.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

bosun’s chair = a seat suspended by ropes, originally used to lift a navy ship’s officers on board. “Murphy had rigged up a sort of a rude bo’s’n’s chair out of the largest piece of wood he could find.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

botfly = a stout hairy-bodied fly with larvae that are internal parasites of mammals. “A botfly buzzed suddenly about the forelegs of the off-wheel horse.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

Bouguereau, La Nuit, 1883
botts = a parasitic infestation of the intestines of animals, especially horses, by larvae of the botfly. “Why, once over on Snake River, when Andrew McWilliams’ saddle horse got the botts, he sent a buckboard ten miles for one of these strangers that claimed to be a botanist.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

Bouguereau, William-Adolphe = a French painter (1825-1905) of realistic genre paintings using mythological themes and emphasizing the female human body, popular on the walls of 19th-century saloons. “The translucent flesh-tints, pearl-white flushing into pink—‘Bouguereau realized at last,’ as Nannie Wetmore was in the habit of summing up her cousin’s complexion—was as marvelous as ever.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Boulanger March = musical composition by L. C. Desormes (1841-1898). “He thundered off ‘Boulanger’s March,’ you bet, it was a daisy.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner. Listen below.

bouncer = something exceptionally large of its kind. “Ain’t she a strapper? Ain’t she a bouncer?” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

bourgeois = master of a trading post. “We were loaded with supplies for the American Fur Company’s posts on the upper Missouri, and carried a number of engages of the Company, and a certain Frenchman, Jules Latour, who had been appointed bourgeois of the old Fort Union.” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

bousy = intoxicated, drunk. “The first thing he knew being landed on his back before his bousy finger could press the trigger.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

box coat = a coat designed to hang loosely from the shoulders. “The breeze carried a chill, and he drew about her the folds of his box-coat.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

box-rustler = a chorus girl who followed her performance by mixing with the patrons in their boxes, promoting the sale of drinks and, when desired, offering herself as a part-time prostitute. “‘Box-rustlers’—who are as common in Butte as bar-maids in Ireland.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

box-stall = an enclosure in which a single animal can move around freely. “He sat on the string-piece of the empty pier next the vessel, and, hanging his feet over the water, watched a box-stall jerked up into mid air by the coughing hoist.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

box stove = a box-shaped wood-burning stove, widely used from colonial times in public buildings and residences. “The old farmer at once set about kindling, with the aid of some coal-oil, a fire in the great box-stove.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

brace = a pair of something. “I held three kings an’ a brace o’ trays.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

brace = to accost. “Did you ever have a stranger brace you like that?” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

brace game = a gambling game in which there is concealed cheating. “When any professional hold-up men tried to ring in a brace game on us, he couldn’t see any joke in it.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

bracer = an alcoholic drink intended to prepare one for something difficult or unpleasant. “The expert took a bracer and a Havana, and soon someone proposed a game of whist.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

bracket lamp = a lamp projecting from a wall by means of wooden or metal angular support. “‘Yas,—ole man Sewell’s youngest gal. She’s been up to St. Louis goin’ t’ school.’ He turned out the bracket lamp.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

bradawl = a small boring-tool with a non-spiral blade. “Superstitious people were afraid of his pale blue eyes, which pierced, they said, like a brad-awl from under their stiff, shaggy eyebrows.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

brain fag = mental exhaustion. “I’m mighty near worked to death in my office,—fact is, I’m ’lowin’ I’ll have the brain fag if things don’t let up.” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

branch house = branch office. “Tib selected a young fellow that was coming out to hold down a stool in his father’s branch house in Melbourne.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

brass-pounder = telegraph operator. “Scotty, the brass-pounder, over at Black Kettle—the agent—he says Apache went out with them all right.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

bread hooker = hand. “‘Why, hello, ole boy’ he says, puttin’ out a bread-hooker; ‘I met you out West, didn’t I?” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

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

breaking cart = a long-shafted two-wheeled cart for breaking horses to single harness. “Once broken to bit and bridle, the young animal was harnessed to the stout breaking cart, in company with a staid old horse or mule.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

breeching / britching = a strong leather strap passing around the hindquarters of a horse harnessed to a vehicle. “Lena and Bleven, crouching under the horse, were tightening its britching.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

briar breaker = an unsophisticated person from the country; a rube, hick. “Mr. Ransome, now dead, had taken precedence even over Uncle Joe Wyatt as a briar-breaker, being among those settlers in the county who had heard the savage yells of the Comanche, and gazed on the shaggy heads of the last of the buffaloes.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

Bride of the Tomb, The = one of 80 dime novels by popular romance writer Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller (1850-1937). “The brand on this here book that effected my change of heart was The Bride of the Tomb. I forget the name of the girl in that romance, but she was in hard luck from the start.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

bring to book = to reprimand or require a person to give an account of themselves. “Not a man he had brought to book moved. They sat like men dazed.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

brother Jonathan = citizens of the United States. “The best thing, however, is, that brother Jonathan, spite of the queer notions which sometimes cross his brain, never loses sight of the great end, his own advantage, as here also was the case.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

brownie = a young, single man. “Surely you are not counseling that I begin a predatory raid on other women’s husbands, or even on the ‘brownies’?” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

brownie = a derogatory term for a brown-skinned person. “But these volunteers will never get her by hunting the brownies with a brass-band.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

brûlée = a burned-over area of forest. “It was dark when they came out of the brûlée and pitched camp amidst the boulders beside a lonely lake.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

brunette = a derogatory term for a Black person. “I reckon the brunettes never before gazed on such wags as we must have appeared to be.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

brunckled up = uncomfortably confined. One end of that name is bound to protrood. Or else it gets brunckled up like a long [man] in a short bed. Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

brush down = a reprimand. “When it comes to a real brush-down with des’prate men, handy with knives, why, he’d better take a back seat, that’s all.” Arthur Paterson, The Better Man.

brush popper = a cowboy who can drive cattle out of thick brush. “Some of these brush poppers as we used to call them, take a lot more chances than any other riders going.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

brush splitter = a cowboy skilled at rounding up cattle in brush country. “For an outfit of thoroughbred Texas brush-splitters a tenderfoot owner was bad enough, always the object of ill-concealed distrust and contempt.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

Brussels carpet = a kind of carpet with a woolen pile and a stout linen back. “A Brussels-carpet saddle-blanket bound with leather rested on the horse’s back.” Frances McElrath, The Rustler.

buck = to play faro or poker. “Some of the boys would drop in at the Eagle, buy a round of drinks and go out, none of them offering to buck the games.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

buck = a priest. “You find these bucks’ trails all over the country. They were made by the priests who came up from old Mexico to evangelise and convert the red heathen of the land.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

Next: B (buck ague - “By the Sad Sea Waves”)

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: Books as touchstones


  1. I can't hear the word 'boom stick' without thinking of the movie Army of Darkness. Bruce Campbell holding up a shotgun in front of a group of knights out of the middle ages and shouting, "this is my boom stick."

  2. First time I've seen the beautiful Bouguereau, La Nuit, 1883. Posted it on my Pinterest page.

    1. A search at google images will turn up many more.