Saturday, September 28, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B
(buck ague - "By the Sad Sea Waves")

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.”

buck ague = nervousness while taking aim at deer or other game. “Would you get buck-ague in a pinch and quit me if it came to a show-down? Are you a stayer?” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

buck and wing = a kind of tap dance. “In the center of the room was a large man dancing a fair buck-and-wing to the time so uproariously set by his companions.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20.

buck at faro = variant of buck the tiger, associated with the game of faro played in frontier saloons. “What’ll we do—take in the Niagara Falls, or buck at faro?” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

buck nun = a hermit; a cloistered male. “I might as well go be a buck nun and be done with it.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

buckbrush = common name for several species of North American shrubs that deer feed on. “The country was very rough, and the buck-brush grew thick.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

bucker = a logging worker who saws logs into lengths. “The ‘buckers’ had then wormed their way among that giant heap of trunks and limbs and matted boughs, and sawn the good timber into lengths.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

bucket = saddle scabbard for a rifle. “The troopers had still their rifles in the buckets, but it was safe for Apache then to let go his hold.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

bucket man = derogatory term for a cowboy. “Sometimes they were called ‘pliers men,’ or ‘bucket men’ by ex-cowboys who would have scorned to carry a ‘bucket of sheep dip,’ or to bother too much about mending a gap in a wire fence.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

bucket shop = an unauthorized office for speculating in stocks or currency using the funds of unwitting investors. “That keeps more men broke than a Wall Street bucket-shop.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

bucking strap = a device worn by a horse to prevent it from lifting its hind-quarters to either kick or buck. “‘I can’t think what got the fellow, or me either,’ he added, with a look of chagrin. ‘I never thought I needed a bucking-strap; but it seems as if I did.’” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

bucko = an aggressive, overbearing, domineering person; a bully. He spoke like a bucko mate, and his words stirred the bile of Dextry. Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

bucky = general reference to a male. “You can bully and browbeat a lot of railroad buckies when you’re playing the boss act, but I know you!” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

budge = liquor. “‘He don’t put in any “budge,”’ said an honest-faced young miner. ‘Parson wouldn’t allow it.’” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

budget = a leather container; wallet. “Deringham glanced through his budget, and his face changed a little.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

budgy = drunk. “When pestered by some ‘Budgy guy’ / You’d almost read it in their eye.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

buffer = a fool. “Every bar-room buffer in the country side will know it by night.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

bug-hunter = any stranger engaged in scientific pursuits. “He decided to ride over to the MacDonald ranch that evening and have a look at the bad hombre who masqueraded as a bug-hunter.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

bug juice = illicitly distilled whiskey. “The jug of ‘bug juice,’ as he called it, Whipsaw had kept constantly just inside the open door of the cabin.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

bugged up = dressed up. “Who’s your friend all bugged up in English clothes.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

bulge = an advantage. “Of course them fellers has got the bulge; they kin starve us out, maybe they kin smoke us out, and they kin sure make things onpleasant whenever they git their long-range guns to throwin’ lead permiscous.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

bulge in/out = to intrude, assert oneself, get busy doing something. “After awhile the sharp who’s dealin’ for ’em goes on with them petitions I interrupts as I comes bulgin’ in.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

bull con = specious, deceitful talk. “When it comes to peddling the bull con he’s there, but when you try to pry off a few slabs of cold hard fact it’s his Sunday off.” Robert W. Service, The Trail of ’98.

bull luck = good fortune, very good luck. “We are all betting on the ‘bull luck’ of old ‘P.’” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

bull of Bashan = a reference to Psalm 22:12; “Many bulls have surrounded me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.” “Our creek, which for eleven months in the year bleated sweetly at the foot of the garden, bellowed loudly as any bull of Bashan, and kept us prisoners in the house.” Horace Annesley Vachell, Bunch Grass.

bull quartz = in mining, quartz of no appreciable value. “He knew the difference between bull quartz and pay rock.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

bull wheel = a wheel of horse-drawn farm implements, providing traction with the ground and powering the moving parts, e.g. the knives, reel, rake, binder. “The bull-wheel, striking a badger hole, threw the machine over sidewise and completely upside down.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

bullets = in the game of poker, aces. “Jabez had queens full on Jacks, Piker had three bullets an’ a team o’ ten-spots, Dick had a royal straight flush, an’ I had a nervous chill.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

bullfinch = a hedge too thick or high for a horse and rider to jump through. “Between the gate-posts swung a barrier of cobweb lightness, slender and airy as ever spider wove, but bristling with barbs, stiff as ‘bullfinch’ and unyielding as steel.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

bull’s eye lamp = an oil-burning reading light with a glass magnifying the light as it fell on the page. “At the flash of a bull’s eye lamp in the roundhouse the men were to fall down and crawl up to within ten yards of the stream.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.

Bully! = an expression of approval used apparently widely among cowboys, and not just by Teddy Roosevelt. “Norton’s eyes gleamed with a savage delight. ‘Bully!’ he declared. ‘If you stay here you’ll get plenty of action’.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Coming of the Law.

bullyrag = to bully, intimidate, harrass. “A few Indians came in to trade, and he bullyragged and browbeat them unmercifully.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

bump = a mental faculty supposedly associated with certain shapes of the cranium; from phrenology. “My bump of curiosity was enlarged somewhat as to his life.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

bump of location = in phrenology, the ability to recognize place and find one’s way. “MacRae’s bump of location was nearly as well developed as Piegan’s.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold.

bunch grasser = a range horse living upon bunch grass, a dense turf grass of the West. “Why didn’t you let him climb his own way? He knew,—he’s a bunch-grasser.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

burgoo = meat and vegetable stew. Ain’t you at this barbecue, to-day, consoomin burgoo an shoutin for Old Hickory? Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

burn powder = fire a gun. “For a breath Robin thought Shining Mark meant to burn powder at last and he stiffened in his tracks, half turned, ready.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West.

burn the wind = to ride fast, make haste. “No use buck-jumpin’ along to burn the wind while they drill streaks of light through us.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

Painting, Burne-Jones, 1860
Burne-Jones, Edward = British Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer (1833-1898). “Ora, who like most imaginative people played with the theory of reincarnation, amused herself visioning Ida in Burne-Jones costumes, haunting the chill midnight corridors of a Florentine palace, dagger in hand, or brewing a poisoned bowl.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

burnt feathers = a home remedy for bringing someone out of a faint. “He vaguely bethought him of burnt feathers, and looked about for the discarded pillow, wondering if it might not be a brilliant idea to cut it open and extract a handful and set it ablaze under those broad and eminently aristocratic nostrils.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

bushwhacker = an unsophisticated person, hillbilly; originally meaning one who lives in the woods; applied to Confederate irregulars during the Civil War. “A long-bearded bushwhacker came loping along on a little bronco.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

bust a tug = collapse from the effort to accomplish something. “He's goin' to make a town down in that sand-pile or bust a tug; I ain't sayin' which right now.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

buster = something exceptional, a dandy. “What a buster of a town ’Frisco must be!” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

button = a fused metal globule, e.g. gold. “I saw the assayer himself. He says it’s straight. Showed me the button.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

buzzard head = a useless or mean horse. “Don’t that look like a reg’lar Injun outfit? One old white horse and a spotted buzzard-head.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

buzzy = crazy, eccentric. “Brown, you’re hivey, you’re buzzy, you’re supposed to hear noises and look idiotic.” Will Levington Comfort, Trooper Tales.

by ginger = a mild oath. “We know it’s a bad school, but, by ginger! we’ll see that you’re stood by.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

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

by Harry = a mild expletive. “‘By Harry,’ cried Wayland, ‘that mule does smell water.’” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

by hooky = a mild expletive. “‘A regular cave, by hooky!’ said the moral guide from Idaho, as he stood upright at last.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

by James = a mild oath. “‘By—James!’ swore Gowan, dropping his guitar and springing up to confront Ashton with deadly menace in his cold eyes.” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.

by jing = a mild oath. “‘I’ll do it, by jing!’ he exclaimed.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

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.

by the ears = in close contest with an unrelenting opponent. “For the settlement would be by the ears, she said, just as long as she stayed in it.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

by the great horn spoon = an emphatic expression, origin disputed. “Here, waiter, by the great horn spoon, I’ve got to have another drink!” Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton.

by the Lord Harry = a mild oath. “By the Lord Harry, Crooks, Ackerman is a director of the Peninsular Railway, of the Commercial Bank, and of the Northern Loan Company!” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

by the Mortal = a mild oath. “By the Mortal! The moon’s high, an’ the travelin’s good. Come on, bullies, we’ll burn them out of their bunks this night!” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.

“By the Sad Sea Waves” = popular song from the1890s by Lester Barrett and Lester Thomas. “He played ‘The Sad Sea Waves’ until you’d think you heard them sobbin.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Previous: B (boom - buck)
Next: C (cab - catch a tartar)

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: Bob Stockton, Counting Coup


  1. By ginger I like the bull of Bashan phrase. Will remember that one.

  2. bug hunter, bugged up. Cool stuff. I always enjoy perusing your vocab posts.

  3. "buck ague" makes some sense as more or less a "buck fever" as "ague" by itself was a sharp fever. I believe we get the word "acute" from the same Latin root.

  4. I will have to dig through my Shakespeare to find it, but "budget" was an Elizabethan term for wallet.

    1. That is the intended meaning in the context of the quote. I'll add "wallet" to the definition. I've come across this term several times in reading, and if it goes back to Elizabethan usage, that's a good long time. Thanks.

  5. A lot of mild oaths. By jing is still used.