Saturday, August 16, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: XYZ
(Yale Mixture – zanjero)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of mostly frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

Yale Mixture = a smoking tobacco sold by Marburg Brothers of Baltimore, Maryland. “He preferred Yale Mixture in his pipe.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

yap = a simpleton; a contemptible person, irrespective of class or background. “That yap up there at the top of the hill could have done this for you long ago.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Yaqui = an Indian tribe originally in northern Mexico and now also in Arizona. “My Gosh, he can eat! And a complexion like a Yaqui.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

yarder = a winch or system of winches powered by an engine and used to haul logs from a stump to a landing or to a skid road. “The yarder came snorting grotesquely down from the dip behind the first ridge.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

yeggman = safe cracker, burglar, thug. “Observe, the gentleman still keeps his sawed-off yeggman’s delight in his pocket.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

yellow / yaller = the U.S. Cavalry, so called for the yellow trim on their uniforms. “All else had drifted into nothingness to him, for the ‘yaller’ had come.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

yellow boy = gold coin; originally a gold guinea. “There’ll be another yellow boy waiting when you come.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

yellow dog = a cowardly, despicable person. “I’d be scared to death I’d get runnin’ around yeppin’ like a yaller dog.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

yellow eyes = Indian term for whites. “These yellow-eyes are only fit to play badger in a gravel-pit or harness themselves to loaded boats, which pull powder and lead up the long river.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

yellow girl = derogatory term for a mulatto; mixed race. “We Southerners’ll hold on to our yaller girls and our sins as tight as we did to our slaves.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

Yellow Hair = Indian name for Gen. Custer. “I spak de English; I was scout with Yellow Hair. I am brav mans.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

yellow ones = gold coin. “I left him a nifty present an’ pulled out with about a thousand yellow ones in my belt an’ the best mount in the West.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

yellow peril = death certificate. “I turned slowly to my desk, picked up a pen and wrote—‘Ptomaine poisoning—Acute Gastritis,’ then, without a twinge of conscience, deliberately signed my name to the ‘yellow peril’ and rang for my attendant.” G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman.

Yellowback novel, 1890
yellow-back = a cheap novel of derring-do. “Don’t talk like a yellow-backed novel! It’s not a life or death affair.” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

York shilling = a monetary unit used for currency in New York before introduction of the dollar in 1792; worth about 12.5 cents. “Not a York shilling of my money could they have for such persuasions of Satan.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

Young Hyson = a Chinese green tea made from young leaves that are thinly rolled to have a long twisted appearance that unfurls when brewed. “I tell Council as I git older I don’t seem to enjoy the Young Hyson n’r Gunpowder. I want the reel green tea, jest as it comes off’n the vines.” Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads.

zacatón = a wiry grass native to the southwest US and Mexico, used in making brushes and paper. “Instead she was roaming the zacaton flats of the Tumbling K and losing herself among the blackbrush ridges, in vague wonder that the world was grown so large.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

zanjero = water master; a collector of assessments for a canal company and controller of the allotment of water to fields (from Spanish zanja, irrigation ditch). “Newly located settlers forsook their ditching and leveling, zanjeros deserted their water gates and levees.” Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth.


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: Ruth Roland, The Sheriff of Stone Gulch (1913)


  1. I was just using the term yellow back in a story.

  2. Haven't heard the term "yellow eyes", usually it's "white eyes" for whites.