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.”
P. C. = prominent citizens. “‘Depewted,’ he said, ‘by a number of prominent citizens,’ with the usual meddlesomeness of the P. C. in all communities.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.
pace = indulgence in reckless dissipation. “He must make good—must win to the fore in the business world as he had won in the athletic. And above all he must forswear the pace!” James Hendryx, The Promise.
packet = a ship traveling at intervals between two ports. “Did not the hope possess me that she would embark in a New York packet.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.
painter = a short rope or chain by which an anchor is held fast to the side of a ship when not in use. “The old sailor cast off the painter and gave the great even push which propelled the craft out between docks.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.
palace car = Pullman railroad car. “Where’s your palace car? Have you sunk so low as to come in a mere cab?” Roger Pocock, Curly.
Palouse = a hilly grassland region in eastern Washington and central Idaho. “I am starting on a long hunting and trading trip, through the Palouse and Big Bend country.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.
pan out = to criticize severely. “When she came in he thought she was a boy an’ kind o’ got gay, an’ she panned him out.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
panocha = defined variously as a pudding made from ground sprouted wheat and sugar from sugarcane, or a fudge-like confection of brown sugar, cream or milk, and chopped nuts. “I seen her talkin’ acrosst the counter to Pedro sweeter’n panocha,—with a takin’ smile on the south end of that cute little face of hern.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.
panola = an Indian cake. “Well, on this march we had nothing but panolas. Many had not even given themselves time to wait for these, and had filled their saddle-bags with baked Indian corn alone.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.
panorama = unrolling or unfolding stage scenery, creating the illusion of movement across a landscape. “The scrap of view that came within a closer range of vision spun past the car windows like a bit of stage mechanism, a gigantic panorama rotating to simulate a race at breakneck speed.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.
pantry = the stomach. “The fire-faced devil-dragon slipped through, caught me full in the pantry, an’ we all avalanched into the celler in one mixed up tangle.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.
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.
paretic = partially or completely paralyzed. “I’ve always tried to lead a good life, and here I am a paretic before I’ve come of age.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.
parker = a bed comforter. “He whispered to his two big nurses to prop him up. They did so with pillows and parkers.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.
parlor cook = a stove used for both heating and cooking. “Together they would enter the kitchen and Frank would prepare the parlor cook for the morning’s firing.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.
parlor-broke = to be comfortable in polite company. “Even Rufus Hardy, the parlor-broke friend and lover, slipped away before any of them were stirring and rode far up along the river.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.
parr = a young salmon or trout. “We’ve fished her out down to the last parr, and that means she’ll stay barren till kingdom come.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.
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.
Parthian arrow = an arrow discharged at an enemy when retreating from him; hence, a parting shot. “She shut those lips firmly, rigorously denying herself the feminine luxury of the last word and the launching of a Parthian arrow that would have made, indeed, a telling shot.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.
pass in one’s checks = to die. “He’d have passed in his checks then if you had not stepped in.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!
pass the buck = originally, the use of a knife with a buckhorn handle as a marker in the game of poker [precise explanations vary]. “In the larger houses there is a dealer, who merely does the dealing and takes care of the rake-off for the house, but in a place like the Eagle the dealer takes an active part in the game, passing the buck each time to indicate which player is to be dealt to first.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.
pasteboard = thin card stock produced by pasting together three or more sheets of paper; used for playing cards. “The man at the left, tall, gaunt, ill-kempt, flicked the pasteboards in his hand to the floor and ground them beneath his heavy boots.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.
patent = obvious. “It was patent that Mark had an inspiration.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.
patent lighter = a device for producing a small flame. “He touched a patent lighter to another cigarette, chose a direction at random, and spurred his pony into a canter.” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.
pattern = model, exemplary. “Not that she did not always behave perfectly proper, she is a pattern woman, but she did not act the recluse because Tom was absent.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.
pay streak = a stratum of mineral deposit capable of yielding profitable amounts of ore. “In spite of the pay-streak of pathos which the reader will doubtless detect in the word-work, there were moments when I could hardly help laughing.” Cy Warman, Frontier Stories.
pea on a drum = frantic, uncontrolled movements; also a small object placed atop something large. “He was jolted and bumped about like the proverbial pea on a drum.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
peach = to inform against. “If th’ don’t give him twinty thousan’ fur settin’ toight here he’ll peach.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.
peach-blow = a delicate purplish pink color likened to that of peach blooms; applied especially to a Chinese porcelain. “She showed no sign of life; the peach-blow left her cheeks an ivory white.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.
peacock = a mineral consisting of sulfides of copper and iron that is found in copper deposits. “‘Fine,’ said Mrs. Landvetter, leisurely examining the specimens. ‘Great. Dere’s a streak of peacock.’” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.
peakie = a flat-bottomed, double-ended riverboat. “Load up a peakie with tools, blocks and tackle and dynamite and run her down river somehow.” A. M. Chisholm, The Boss of Wind River.
peanut = a person of little significance, influence, or power. “He had dared to interfere with the petty plans of peanut politicians and public plunderers.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.
pearl = of the eyes, having cataracts. “In that gloom he suggested uncanny countenances, such as Gail had seen pictured from catacombs, except for his blue eyes—bulging ‘pearl’ eyes, watery and burning, which did not blink.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.
peascod = pea pod. “I want to know why I shouldn’t propose to waltz with a nice girl as well as a thin-waisted young peascod like yourself.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.
peckerwood = woodpecker; poor white. “Laws, honey, it makes me look like a peckerwood—I do p’intedly look like I was sent fer an’ couldn’t come.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.
Pecos = to dispose of a body in the Pecos River. “The river was known by many as the river of sin, for when a man was killed in its vicinity, he sometimes was weighted down and his body sunk in the stream, hence the saying to Pecos him, or he was Pecosed.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.
pedro = a trick-taking card game, popular as a gambling game until the end of the 19th century. “They took their ease one hot nooning, two playing pedro at a rough wooden table while the third dozed and nodded with stool tilted back against the wall.” Herman Whitaker, Over the Border.
peeling = a scolding. “What a peelin’ ye did give ’im. It made my hair pull to hear ye!” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.
peeler = a cowboy, horse breaker; a man who skins cows. “About two o’clock Doc Langford and two of his peelers were seen ring up.” Andy Adams, The Log of a Cowboy.
pegged out = dead, exhausted. “‘I’m pegged out,’ he said, wearily. ‘I’ll just sit here by the fire.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.
pelt = to hurry. “I ran as hard as I could pelt to the Foss River Ranch.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.
penstock = a channel, trough, or tube for conveying water from a lake or dam to a waterwheel or turbine. “The crowd cheered as the imprisoned waters leapt to freedom with a hollow roar, raising in pitch as the penstock filled and the wheels began to go round.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.
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.
peoned out = derogative term among rustlers for a cowboy. “The honest cowboys who remained steadfast in their endeavour to protect the interest of their employers were spoken of with contempt, and were referred to as being ‘peoned out’ to the employers, and were accused of ‘living on bacon rinds, like so many jackasses’.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.
per mensem = by the month. “Having rejected his heart with a pecuniary attachment of thirty-five dollars per mensem, she fell like a shooting-star and became a mere receptacle for his succeeding passions.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.
perdu = hidden, concealed. “Until after the noon hour we laid perdu in the hollow, no wiser for our watching.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold.
permanganate of potash = a chemical compound patented and marketed as Condy’s crystals, a disinfectant. “It’s the best thing there is to cheat rattlers,—just cheap, ordinary permanganate of potash.” Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths.
Perry, Nora = an American poet and writer of juvenile stories (1831-1896). “The sort of person that Laura E. Richards writes about, and Nora Perry, and Louisa M. Alcott.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.
Perry Davis’ Pain Killer = a patent medicine containing opiates and ethyl alcohol, created in 1840. “I didn’t have no vanilly or lemon flavor, so I just put in a squirt of Perry Davis’ Pain Killer, and I guess that’s what knocked her out.” Therese Broderick, The Brand.
pervade = to move or move about. “A passel of us is sorter pervadin’ ’round the dance-hall.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.
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.
petted on = fond of, pleased by. “Aunty Luce declared she ‘nevah did see a chile so petted on one who wasn’t no kin.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.
Phyllis = a country girl; a girl’s name in ancient pastoral poetry. “I did not need a mother’s love then, nor a home to make me an old-fashioned Phyllis, —I have always been too up-to-date.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.
Previous: O (oak-tan – oyster)
Next: P (piazza – popple)
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: Michael Zimmer, Leaving Yuma