Saturday, August 23, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: addenda
(air-tights – dornick)

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.” (The following are additions, turned up since the weekly postings began a year ago.)

air-tights = canned goods, e.g. tomatoes, peaches, milk. “At last Crawfish, havin’ turned his little game for flour, air-tights, an’ jig-juice, as I says, gets into the Red Light, an’ braces up ag’in the bar an’ calls for nose-paint all ’round.”  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’ thars a heap of improvements. Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Allen’s 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 ‘Allen’s ‘Cherry Pectoral’ were most needed to ‘purify the blood.’” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

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 from fable who dreams of riches by counting up profits before they are realized. “He remembered how, Alnaschar-like, they nearly separated once over a difference in the disposal a hundred thousand dollars that they never had, nor expected to have.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

bazoo = mouth. “It ain’t been usual for me to blow my own bazoo to any extent.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

beef = to kill (for food). “He’s aroused public sentiments to sech heights thar’ll be a pop’lar disapp’intment if he don’t challenge the Red Dog editor an’ beef him.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

bet the finger = a type of wager in the game of faro, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers: “When a man requests this privilege it means that he will call the amount of his wager without producing the visible stakes, and the dealer may accept or refuse according to his judgment of the bettor’s responsibility.”

bird-cage = a prison cell. “Now, this lawyer party must get away to-night or these grafters will hitch the horses to him on some phony charge so he can’t get to the upper court. It’ll be him to the bird-cage for ninety days.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

blazer = a hoax, lie, trick. “As he says this, Black Jack sets up a bottle an’ cup, an’ then for a blazer slams a six-shooter on the bar at the same time.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Days.

blind lead = vein of valuable minerals not visible from the surface (metaphorically, one who keeps quiet about something). “Doc Peets, whose jedgement of females is a cinch, allows she’s as pretty as a diamond flush, and you can gamble Doc Peets ain’t makin’ no blind leads when it’s a question of squaws.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

blue-joint = a species of grass (Calamagrostis canadensis), native to Canada, known also as reedgrass and pinegrass. “In the lowland feeding grounds luxuriant patches of blue-joint, wild oats, and other tall forage plants waved in the wind.” Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border.

bobbinet / bobinet = a machine-made cotton or silk net, imitating lace. “His heart all but failed him when he saw his bride-to-be in her bobinet veil, a flush upon her broad face.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

boss = the best, excellent, wonderful. “Some of ’em are boss. But y’ want ’o know what y’re gittin’.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

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

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.

bulge in = to intrude, appear suddenly. “Along comes the eboolient Turkey Track, bulges headlong into her dest’nies, takes to menacin’ her with a gun an’, final, to bombardin’ her outright, an’—love an’ heart an’ hand—she comes a-runnin’.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Faro Nell and Her Friends.

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.

Camilla = from Roman legend, a woman warrior who fought on the side of Turnus against Aeneas. “But the sudden shadow of a coyote checked the scouring feet of this swift Camilla, and sent her back precipitately to the buggy.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

caravansera = an inn. “It became no uncommon occurrence for Andy P. Symes to whisk Augusta into a caravanserai where the gentlemen patrons ate large, filling plates of griddle cakes with their hats on.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

case-keeper = a faro dealer’s assistant, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers: “It is customary for the case-keeper to sit on the opposite side of the table from the dealer, with a device before him resembling an abacus, or Chinese adding machine. When a card is removed from the faro-box by the dealer, the ‘hearse-driver’ moves a button opposite a corresponding card on his little machine, in order that the players, at a glance, may tell what spots have been played or are still in the box.”

case-player = a faro player, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers, who bets money “only on the final pair, thus avoiding the chance of two cards of like denomination coming together, in which event (‘splits’ it is called) the dealer takes half the money.”

clamshell = mouth. “This yere valet puts in his servile time standin’ ’round, an’ never opens his clamshell.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Folks.

Man with Claude glass
Claude glass = a dark-tinted mirror used by artists to view and paint picturesque landscapes, named for 17th-century painter Claude Lorraine. “It was placed at such a cunning angle against the darkness of the forest opening that it made a soft and mysterious mirror, not unlike a Claude Lorraine glass.” Bret Harte, Frontier Stories.

cold-decked = cheated with use of a stacked deck of cards. “We’ve been cold-decked with a bum judge. They’ve got us into a corner and over the ropes.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

collarette = a woman’s ornamental collar of lace or fur. “The editor chose to refer to the pineapple pattern, No. 60 cotton, collarette which Mrs. Jackson had crocheted between beers in the good old Dance Hall days as an ‘exquisite effect in point lace.’” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

Congress gaiters = a covering of cloth or leather around the ankle or lower leg, with elastic sides (also “Congress shoes,” “Congress boots”). “She was wearing Congress gaiters, comfortable but not ‘dressy.’” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

cooncan = a game of rummy played with two packs including two jokers (from Mexican Spanish conquián). “The stud-poker players cut for the stakes and quit; coon-can was called off, and by the time Number Nine slowed down for the station the entire floating population of Bender was lined up to see her come in.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.  

cop out = to steal. “The gamblers down-town cop out the few aigs an’ green vegetables that stray off the ships, so they never get out as far as the creek none.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

dasher = a board of wood or leather in the front of a carriage to keep out mud; a dashboard. “There was a swift lurch that sent him flying over the dasher.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

diagonals = clothing made of twilled fabric woven with diagonal lines. “He looked at Lutz in his shiny black diagonals, undersized, sallow, his meaningless brown eyes as dull as the eyes of a dead fish.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

Digger Injun = a derogatory term for a member of any of several Indian peoples of western North America, especially of a tribe that dug roots for food. “I jumped at a poor little bandy-legged sheep-herder, a cross between a gorilla and a Digger Injun—scared him to death.” Dane Coolidge, Hidden Water.  

dodger = a small handbill or circular. “The editor issued an ‘Extra’ of dodger-like appearance, and it is doubtful if he would have used larger type to announce an anticipated visit of the President,” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

dornick = a small stone, field stone. “‘By what that pint pans out,’ he says, ‘thar should be twenty dollars’ worth of gold in this yere dornick!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville Folks.

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: Robert Preston, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (1952)


  1. I'm working on a western story so am studying these for ideas and vocabulary.

  2. I remember In B. M. Bower's "Rowdy of the Cross L," the hero teaches his ladylove how to play coon-can when they're trapped in a snow-bound cabin..