Saturday, May 17, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: S
(saccatone – settlement)

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.”

saccatone = a wiry grass native to the southwest US and Mexico, used in making brushes and paper (from Spanish zacatón). “He had come down through a little gully that led into the flat and was loping his pony through the deep saccatone grass toward the cabin.” Charles Alden Seltzer, The Two-Gun Man.

sagamore = a chief of a North American tribe or confederation. “The most venerable sagamore of the tribe remembered that the old squaw was regarded as the only living relic of an age of by-gone majesty.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

salal = a small evergreen shrub of the heath family found on the Pacific coast of North America and bearing edible grape-sized dark purple berries. “At that moment, Colonel, pushing through a tangle of salal, stumbled to his knees.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

saleratus = sodium bicarbonate (or sometimes potassium bicarbonate) as the main ingredient of baking powder. “It is not to be expected that a guest should put up with wheat coffee and biscuits yellow-streaked with saleratus for longer than that.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

“Sally in Our Alley” = a song by English composer Henry Carey (1693-1743), popular in America in the 18th century. “When the miners called for more, she sang them of ‘Barbara Allen’ and ‘Sally in Our Alley.’” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book. Listen to the lyrics here.

salmon twine = a strong linen or cotton twine used in the manufacture of salmon nets. “There was nothing for him to do but to stop long enough to make a good job of it, which he did by chopping out a piece of ash, whittling down a couple of thin but tough strips, and splicing the break securely with the strong ‘salmon twine’ that he always carried.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

salt-hoss = horsemeat preserved in salt. “I takes grub with Crawfish that same day; good chuck, too; mainly sheep-meat, salt-hoss, an’ bakin’-powder biscuit.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

salt rising bread = a dense white bread widely made by early settlers in the Appalachian Mountains in a process that involves no yeast. “I jus’ brought a loaf of salt-risin’ bread, Missioner, I baked fresh this afternoon, an’ some lemon-jelly cake.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

sample room = a bar-room, a place where liquor is sold by the glass. “Next day, the Judge, he give consultin’s in the eatin’-house sample-room.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

sand = courage. “But bein’ replete with sand an’ ’nitiative, that a-way, don’t state all ther is good of Jack.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

sand hog = a tunnel worker. “Your town hack didn’t know what it meant to be a sand hog under ground for years and come through to daylight like that.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

sand-tell = a system for marking a deck of cards, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers, “certain ones of which had been roughened or sand-papered slightly, so that, by pressing more heavily on the top or exposed card, the one beneath would stick to its neighbor above, and enable him to deal two with one motion if the occasion demanded.”

sandsoap = a kind of soap with a gritty texture. “I never touch the outside of a pot—and I scour them with sandsoap.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.

“Sandy Land” = traditional song; full title, “Great Big Taters in Sandy Land.” “S’pose we-alls gives him ‘The Dyin’ Ranger’ an’ ‘Sandy Land’ for an hour or so, an’ see.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

sangaree = a cold drink of diluted and spiced wine. “Mary could never remember when the need of money to pay the mortgage had not invaded the gentle routine of their home-life, robbing the sangaree of its delicate flavor in the long, sleepy summer afternoons.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Sangreal = Holy Grail. “In reality, life was approaching its climax, and his Sangreal yet unwon.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

sapper = a soldier who digs trenches to undermine fortifications or builds and repairs them. “They went down the Weber, then toward East Cañon, a dozen of the bearded host going forward with spades and axes as sappers.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Saratoga trunk = a large traveling trunk usually with a rounded top. “Since he stopped getting drunk, / He’s saved up all his money for a Saratoga trunk.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

sash-lights = windowpanes. “Hilliard’s friends were protesting in loud and angry amazement against the implied suspicion, and freely offering to ‘lick the sash-lights’ out of his detractors.” Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters.

sass = fresh or preserved vegetables or fruit eaten as part of a meal or a relish; sauce. “The authorities decided to leave it alone to market its own garden sass.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

sauce = to speak impertinently. “As old Ben Rines, of Southport, used to say, when the boys sauced him, ‘Let ’em talk, it don’t hurt me none.’” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

saw off = to bestow upon, part company with. “Jerry has shore sawed off a sore affliction on that tenderfoot when he takes in them teeth; I can see that.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

saw-off = a deadlock, stalemate. “What’s up? Some one getting married—or a legacy, or a saw-off? Why, what a lot of Sunday-go-to-meeting folks to be sure.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

saw on/onto = to be given responsibility for. “You can bet anythin’ which gets sawed onto me as my dooty goes, an’ don’t make no doubt about it.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

saw the air = to talk or act indecisively. “A good many of us feel the way you do; but like you, we’re all up in air. Sawing the air doesn’t saw wood.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

saw wood = to get on with one’s work. “He ‘sawed wood’ with a rapidity and uninterruptedness which gave alarm. He had the air of coaling up for a long voyage.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

sawney = a fool. “Lor’, I’ve heerd tell o’ their sayin’s, sometimes, ’n’ seems to me like they mus’ be awful sawneys.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

sawyer = an uprooted tree held fast by one end in a river. “The dead and broken snags, the ‘sawyers’ of river parlance, fast in the sandbars, seemed waiting to impale the steamboat.” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

scab = mange, or a similar skin disease in animals. “I hope every herd in the State dies of scab.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

scabs = cattle under a year old. “On other occasions the herd would consist of a certain kind, such as long yearlings, short yearlings, tail end and scabs.” Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.

scalper = one who buys the unused portions of long-distance railroad tickets in order to sell them at a profit. “He had been put off the overland train at that place because the conductor had discovered that he was riding on a scalper’s ticket.” Florence Finch Kelly, With Hoops of Steel.

scaly = poor, shabby, despicable. “‘No. But they say he’s makin’ a terrible lot o’ money,’ the old man said in a hushed voice. ‘But the way he makes it is awfully scaly.’” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

scamp = to do something in a perfunctory or slipshod fashion. “Don’t scamp your meals, Grady.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

scantling = a timber of relatively slight width and thickness, as a stud or rafter in a house frame. “Bailey went out to the front of the shanty to look at the lantern he had set up on the scantling.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

Science Jottings = generic term for scientific information of general interest to be found in newspapers and other periodicals. “The humour of a Sunday paper, Ouida, ‘The Duchess,’ ‘The Master Christian,’ Science Jottings, the Nineteenth Century would carry Bill, all equally, into some weird fairyland.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West. 

scissor-bill = a foolish, incompetent, gossipy, or objectionable person. “He must be some Scissor-Bill from Missouri. They all act like that when they first come out.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

scolding locks = locks of hair, usually curled, that do not stay in place. “Mrs. Jackson, who had been peering through the foliage of a potted geranium on the window-sill, was pinning frantically at her scolding locks.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

score = a sum owed by a customer. “He was still muttering gloomily when he went up to the desk to pay his score.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

scour = a shallow place in a river where the bed is of gravel. “The river carried them to its secret places; buried them in some scour or pothole.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

scrag = to hang (on a gallows); throttle, choke. “You Indians better go home. What did you want to get scragged for?” Stephen Crane, “The Five White Mice.”

scratch gravel = to work hard, leave in a hurry. “The rest of the two thousand men on Ezra Calkins’s pay-roll would come hanging around pestering you all with Winchesters. They’d make you scratch gravel, sure!” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

scrooge = to squeeze. “Horace scrooged back into bed an’ pulled all the covers off Tank whom he was sleepin’ with.” Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck.

scrub = a worthless, contemptible, insignificant person. “All the scrubs and skin-game men were drifting into that corner behind him.” Roger Pocock, Curly.

Scrubine = a soap used for cleaning and scouring. “Tib’s way was to make virtue so attractive that, like Scrubine and other washing confections, you simply had to have it to be happy.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

scum = to move rapidly. “The ’Frisco Kid obeyed the voice of his partner in a manner that was blind but absolute and they scummed Benson on past the door.” Stephen Crane, “The Five White Mice.

scut = a contemptible person. “Ye lyin’ scut! Ye filthy cess pool o’ dirt an’ falsehood!” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

scutch = to strike with a stick, whip or lash. “I was mad enough to ’ve give the boy a little scutchin’ sure enough.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

scuttle = a hatchway. “There was a ladder here, leading to a scuttle in the roof.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

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.

seedy = unwell. “’And Miss Maitland,—how is she?’ ‘Rather seedy. She has had a good deal of care and vexation of late’.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

seidel = a beer mug or glass. “Sitting at a table, he ordered a seidel of beer, as the white-robed female orchestra struck up on their dais under artificial palms.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

seidlitz powder = a medication made by mixing powders of sodium potassium tartrate, sodium bicarbonate, and tartaric acid, used for its laxative effect or to treat hangovers. “Him and me seen the elephant and the owl, and we had specimens of this seidlitz powder wine.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

seizings = lashings used to bind together two ropes, two parts of the same rope, or rope and another object. “Have the pack and seizings handy, Charley.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

Selkirk, Alexander = a Scottish sailor (1676-1721), who spent more than four years as a castaway on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean; the likely inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. “He rounded out his letter with a real literary flourish by quoting all he could remember of the poem about Alexander Selkirk as it appeared in the old dog-eared reader in the little school at the Corners.” John G. Neihardt, Life’s Lure.

sembicuacua = a frenzied dance, which according to a writer for The Century (1895), “left much to the invention of the performers, and very little to the imagination of the spectator.” “She whisked the shawl from her shoulders, held it up like a scarf, and made one or two steps of the sembicuacua.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

seminary = private girls school. “When Simmons, the bookkeeper, was not looking, he gave a side study to the seminary handwriting on an envelope.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

send over the rim of the basin = a 19th-century Mormon euphemism for taking the life of someone who was out of favor with church authority. “Any informer was to be ‘sent over the rim of the basin’—except that one of their number was to make a full report to the President at Salt Lake City.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

servigorous = determined, difficult to control. “You boys look out now, this here cow is just servigorous.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

settle = a wooden bench with a high back and arms, typically incorporating a box under the seat. “Griggs got upon his feet, yawning and stretching before he dropped back into his corner of the wooden settle.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

settlement = an establishment in a poor part of a large city lived in by people engaged or interested in social work or reform. “I spend a week every Lent in a Settlement, and we came up here to do good.” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.


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: Carol Buchanan, Gold Under Ice


  1. Mom wanted to name one of her children Sally, but my grandmother kept saying "Sally in our alley" until she gave up and chose another name.

  2. Seems like there was a jump rope song on that.

  3. You may have heard of the town of Sacaton south of Phoenix. I'll check the grass when I go through there..