Do you love cowboy slang? Then have a look at Western Slang & Phrases: A Writer’s Guide to the Old West. This is a wonderful collection of a nearly forgotten dialect, compiled by G.M. Atwater. Reprinted here in its entirety.
Western Slang & Phrases: A Writer’s Guide to the Old West.
Being a small compilation drawn from period newspapers, books, and memoirs (1860′s ~ 1880′s)
Compiled by G. M. Atwater, January 2001
Part of the charm and character of the Old West, as viewed through our modern eyes, has always been the colorful speech of those days. Books have borrowed it, movies have parodied it, and children gallop around on stick horses mimicking it. Yet what DID those people really have to say? If we could listen to Great-great Grandpa, what might come out of his mouth? Of course, Grandma might have gone after him with a broom, for some of it, but for those who write, or those who simply possess inquiring minds, it seems a gathering of a few words or phrases would not be amiss. To that end, I offer this little collection of idioms, which I have gleaned during my reading travels.
Ace-high ~ first class, respected.
According to Hoyle ~ Correct, by the book.
A hog-killin’ time ~ a real good time. “We went to the New Year’s Eve dance and had us a hog-killin’ time.”
A lick and a promise ~ to do haphazardly. “She just gave it a lick and a promise.”
All down but nine ~ missed the point, not understood. (Reference to missing all nine pins at bowling.)
Arbuckle’s ~ slang for coffee, taken from a popular brand of the time. “I need a cup of Arbuckle’s.”
At sea ~ at a loss, not comprehending. “When it comes to understanding women, boys, I am at sea.”
Back down ~ yield, retract.
Balled up ~ confused.
Bang-up ~ first rate. “They did a bang-up job.”
Bazoo ~ mouth. “Shut your big bazoo.”
Bear sign ~ cowboy term for donuts. A cook who could and would make them was highly regarded.
Beat the devil around the stump ~ to evade responsibility or a difficult task. “Quit beatin’ the devil around the stump and ask that girl to marry you.”
Beef ~ to kill. (From killing a cow to make beef to eat.) “Curly Bill beefed two men in San Antonio.”
Bend an elbow ~ have a drink. “He’s been known to bend an elbow with the boys.”
Bender ~ drunk. “He’s off on another bender.”
Between hay and grass ~ neither man nor boy, half-grown.
Best bib and tucker ~ your best clothes. “There’s a dance Saturday, so put on your best bib and tucker.”
Big bug ~ important person, official, boss. “He’s one of the railroad big bugs.”
Bilk ~ cheat.
Blow ~ boast, brag. “Don’t listen to him, that’s just a lot of blow.”
Blowhard ~ braggart, bully.
Blow-up ~ fit of anger. “He and the missus had a blow-up, but it’s over, now.”
Bone orchard ~ cemetery.
Bosh ~ Nonsense.
Boss ~ the best, top. “The Alhambra Saloon sells the boss whiskey in town.”
Bulldoze ~ to bully, threaten, coerce.
Bully ~ Exceptionally good, outstanding. (Used as an exclamation.) “Bully for you!”
Bunko artist ~ con man.
Burg ~ town.
By hook or crook ~ to do any way possible.
Calaboose ~ jail.
California widow ~ woman separated from her husband, but not divorced. (From when pioneer men went West, leaving their wives to follow later.)
Chisel, chiseler ~ to cheat or swindle, a cheater.
Clean his/your plow ~ to get or give a thorough whippin’.
Coffee boiler ~ shirker, lazy person. (Would rather sit around the coffee pot than help.)
Consumption ~ slang for pulminary tuberculosis.
Copper a bet ~ betting to lose, or prepare against loss. “I’m just coppering my bets.”
Come a cropper ~ come to ruin, fail, or fall heavily. “He had big plans to get rich, but it all come a cropper, when the railroad didn’t come through.”
Croaker ~ pessimist, doomsayer. “Don’t be such an old croaker.”
Crowbait ~ derogatory term for a poor-quality horse.
Curly wolf ~ real tough guy, dangerous man. “Ol’ Bill is a regular curly wolf, especially when he’s drinkin’ whiskey.”
Cut a swell ~ present a fine figure. “He sure is cutting a swell with the ladies.”
Dicker ~ barter, trade.
Difficulty ~ euphamism for trouble, often the shootin’ or otherwise violent kind. “He had to leave Texas on account of a difficulty with a gambler in San Antonio.”
Directly ~ soon. “She’ll be down, directly.”
Deadbeat ~ bum, layabout, useless person.
Dinero ~ from the Spanish, a word for money.
Don’t care a continental ~ Don’t give a damn.
Down on ~ opposed to. “His wife is really down on drinking and cigars.”
Doxology works ~ a church.
Dragged out ~ fatigued, worn out.
Dreadful ~ very. “Oh, her dress is dreadfully pretty.”
Dry gulch ~ to ambush. Reference from abandoning a body where it fell.
Dude ~ an Easterner, or anyone in up-scale town clothes, rather than plain range-riding or work clothes.
Eucher, euchered ~ to out-smart someone, to be outwitted or suckered into something.
Fandango ~ from the Spanish, a big party with lots of dancing and excitement.
Fetch ~ bring, give. “Fetch me that hammer.” / “He fetched him a punch in the nose.”
Fight like Kilkenny cats ~ fight like hell.
Fine as cream gravy ~ very good, top notch.
Fish ~ a cowboy’s rain slicker, from a rain gear manufacturer whose trademark was a fish logo. “We told him it looked like rain, but left his fish in the wagon anyhow.”
Flannel mouth ~ an overly smooth or fancy talker, especially politicians or salesmen. “I swear that man is a flannel-mouthed liar.”
Flush ~ prosperous, rich.
Fork over ~ pay out.
Four-flusher ~ a cheat, swindler, liar.
Full as a tick ~ very drunk.
Fuss ~ disturbance. “They had a little fuss at the saloon.”
Game ~ to have courage, guts, gumption. “He’s game as a banty rooster.” Or, “That’s a hard way to go, but he died game.”
Get a wiggle on ~ hurry.
Get it in the neck ~ get cheated, misled, bamboozled.
Get my/your back up ~ to get angry. “Don’t get your back up, he was only joking.”
Get the mitten ~ to be rejected by a lover. “Looks like Blossom gave poor Buck the mitten.”
Give in ~ yield.
Goner ~ lost, dead.
Gone up the flume ~ same as goner!
Gospel mill ~ a church.
Gospel sharp ~ a preacher. (Apparent opposite of a card sharp!)
Got the bulge ~ have the advantage. “We’ll get the bulge on him, and take his gun away.”
Go through the mill ~ gain experience. (Often the hard way.)
Grand ~ excellent, beautiful. “Oh, the Christmas decorations look just grand!”
Granger ~ a farmer.
Grass widow ~ divorcee.
Hang around ~ loiter.
Hang fire ~ delay.
Half seas over ~ drunk.
Hard case ~ worthless person, bad man.
Heap ~ a lot, many, a great deal. “He went through a heap of trouble to get her that piano.”
Heeled ~ to be armed with a gun. “He wanted to fight me, but I told him I was not heeled.”
Here’s how! ~ a toast, such as Here’s to your health.
Hobble your lip ~ shut up.
Hold a candle to ~ measure up, compare to.
Hoosegow ~ jail.
Hot as a whorehouse on nickel night ~ damned hot.
In apple pie order ~ in top shape.
Is that a bluff, or do you mean it for real play? ~ Are you serious?
Jig is up ~ scheme/game is over, exposed.
Kick up a row ~ create a disturbance.
Knocked into a cocked hat ~ fouled up, rendered useless.
Knock galley west ~ beat senseless.
Let slide/ let drive/ let fly ~ go ahead, let go. “If you think you want trouble, then let fly.”
Light (or lighting) a shuck ~ to get the hell out of here in a hurry. “I’m lightin’ a shuck for California.”
Like a thoroughbred ~ like a gentleman.
Lunger ~ slang for someone with tuberculosis.
Make a mash ~ make a hit, impress someone. (Usually a female.) “Buck’s tryin’ to make a mash on that new girl.”
Mudsill ~ low-life, thoroughly disreputable person.
Nailed to the counter ~ proven a lie.
Namby-pamby ~ sickly, sentimental, saccharin.
Odd stick ~ eccentric person. “Ol’ Farmer Jones sure is an odd stick.”
Of the first water ~ first class. “He’s a gentleman of the first water.”
Offish ~ distant, reserved, aloof.
Oh-be-joyful ~ Liquor, beer, intoxicating spirits. “Give me another snort of that oh-be-joyful.”
On the shoot ~ looking for trouble. “Looks like he’s on the shoot, tonight.”
Pass the buck ~ evade responsibility.
Pay through the nose ~ to over-pay, or pay consequences.
Peter out ~ dwindle away.
Play to the gallery ~ to show off. “That’s just how he is, always has to play to the gallery.”
Played out ~ exhausted.
Plunder ~ personal belongings. “Pack your plunder, Joe, we’re headin’ for San Francisco.”
Pony up ~ hurry up!
Powerful ~ very. “He’s a powerful rich man.”
Promiscuous ~ reckless, careless. “He was arrested for a promiscuous display of fire arms.”
Proud ~ glad. “I’m proud to know you.”
Pull in your horns ~ back off, quit looking for trouble.
Put a spoke in the wheel ~ to foul up or sabotage something.
Quirley ~ roll-your-own cigarette.
Rich ~ amusing, funny, improbable. “Oh, that’s rich!”
Ride shank’s mare ~ to walk or be set afoot.
Right as a trivet ~ right as rain, sound as a nut, stable.
Rip ~ reprobate. “He’s a mean ol’ rip.”
Roostered ~ drunk. “Looks like those cowboys are in there gettin’ all roostered up.”
See the elephant ~ originally meant to see combat for the first time, later came to mean going to town, where all the action was.
Scoop in ~ trick, entice, inveigle. “He got scooped into a poker game and lost his shirt.”
Scuttlebutt ~ rumors.
Shave tail ~ a green, inexperienced person.
Shin out ~ run away.
Shindy ~ uproar, confusion.
Shoddy ~ poor quality.
Shoot, Luke, or give up the gun ~ poop or get off the pot, do it or quit talking about it.
Shoot one’s mouth off ~ talk nonsense, untruth. “He was shootin’ his mouth off and Bill gave him a black eye.”
Shove the queer ~ to pass counterfeit money.
Simon pure ~ the real thing, a genuine fact. “This is the Simon pure.”
Skedaddle ~ run like hell.
Soaked ~ drunk.
Soft solder ~ flattery. “All that soft solder won’t get you anywhere.”
Someone to ride the river with ~ a person to be counted on; reliable; got it where it counts.
Sound on the goose ~ true, staunch, reliable.
Stand the gaff ~ take punishment in good spirit. “He can really stand the gaff.”
Stop ~ stay. “We stopped at the hotel last night.”
Stumped ~ confused.
Superintend ~ oversee, supervise. “He just likes to superintend everything.”
Take on ~ grieve. “Don’t take on so.”
Take French leave ~ to desert, sneak off without permission.
Take the rag off ~ surpass, beat all. “Well, if that don’t take the rag off the bush.”
The Old States ~ back East.
The whole kit and caboodle ~ the entire thing.
Throw up the sponge ~ quit, give up, surrender.
Tie to ~ rely on. “He’s a man you can tie to.”
To beat the Dutch ~ to beat the band. “It was rainin’ to beat the Dutch.”
To the manner born ~ a natural. “He’s a horseman to the manner born.”
Twig ~ understand.
Up the spout ~ gone to waste/ruin.
Wake up/Woke up the wrong passenger ~ to trouble or anger the wrong person.
Who-hit-John ~ Liquor, beer, intoxicating spirits. “He had a little too much who-hit-John.”
Wind up ~ settle. “Let’s wind up this business and go home.”
SMILE WHEN YOU SAY THAT….
Swear Words ~ No, I’m not going to list any, sorry! But I will say that most of the raunchier side of the language has been around for a very long time. Just keep in mind that, in the Victorian era, profanity was frowned upon in polite society, and any man who considered himself a gentleman, at all, would not use hard language in front of ladies or young ones. Yes, people certainly did swear, but I honestly do not think profanity was quite as much a common part of casual American speech, as often seems today. A man swore for emphasis, in passion, or to make a point, but if he swore in public as an everyday habit, he would be noticed, and likely regarded as a fairly coarse sort of fellow. For a lady to swear was rare, and for her to use rough language would be scandalous.
If you ain’t too tired yet, you might also have a gander at the Old West Legends page over yonder at Legends of America.
Have a listen to the queen of cowboy yodel, Rosalie Allen. Pay special attention to her yodel solo at around the 2:05 mark in the video.
This article was originally posted to Smells Like Pop, the West Coast’s funkiest smelling music blog.
On more than one occasion during my foolish youth I recall saying, “I have very eclectic musical tastes. I listen to everything, except country-western of course.” That all changed for me this year. What happened, you ask?
Short answer: I bought a ukulele.
The ukulele got me interested in lots of “new” right-hand strumming and finger-picking techniques. It taught me how to use my thumb to hold down a bass line while my other fingers pick out a melody. This technique is a mainstay in country music. Also, the steel guitar, which is so closely associated with country music, is a Hawaiian invention. In searching out ukulele tunes to learn, I became mesmerized by the sound of steel guitar. There are many recordings that blur the line between vintage country-string music and traditional Hawaiian music. Listen to King Bennie Nawahi and, most significantly, Roy Smeck.
The long answer as to how I gained a rather sudden appreciation of country-western music follows:
Growing up in Los Angeles and San Francisco, I didn’t know anyone except a few older relatives who listened to country music. It seemed like a quaint relic from the past. It wasn’t to be heard in the neighborhoods of suburban LA. It didn’t come up in later years in San Francisco either; country music simply wasn’t part of the landscape.
In retrospect, my objections were mostly cultural: country music was for red states and I lived in blue states. This point is still largely true. In fact my new-found appreciation for country-western music can be credited to the influence of a neighbor, who goes in for lots of Republican-candidate signs each election cycle.
Regardless of any preconceptions you may have, if you’ve never before given country-western music a chance, it’s time to give it a listen.
My first bit of advice for a crash course in country-music appreciation is skip past the last 25 years of country music. I’m sure there were hundreds of great recordings made during these years, but you’ll have to find out about those recordings from someone else. I suggest you dig deeper beneath the surface, all the way down to the roots of country music. There’s a wonderful, rich history there that very nearly passed me by.
Give a listen to some of these great vintage country tracks:
- Rocky Top, Tennessee - A Tennessee anthem, this tune has been recorded by dozens of artists over the years. It’s a celebration of Appalachian bluegrass and simpler days gone by. I recommend the Osborne Brothers’ 1960′s-era Decca recording. The link here is to a video of a much more recent performance.
- The Delmore Brothers – “Freight Train Boogie”
Growing up in Alabama at the turn of the century, these guys came at country music with gospel harmonies and the fast picking style they heard in Appalachian spirituals. This type of country music has a distinct jazzy groove to it.
- J. E. Mainer and His Mountaineers – “Oh, Those Tombs”
There’s an acceptance of tragedy in the lyrics of these early “hillbilly country” tunes. This stringband music emerged out of poverty and the expectation that life would be short and brutish. “Let your teardrops kiss the flowers on my grave,” goes one of the lines.
- O’Brother, Where Art Though (movie soundtrack)
This T. Bone Burnett produced soundtrack is a goldmine of modern-day recordings of depression-era bluegrass, country, gospel, and folk standards. It joyfully explores the musical styles that influenced the early days of country.
Other Not-To-Be-Missed Country Treats:
- Chet Atkins – ‘Orange Blossom Special’
- Johhny Cash – ‘Get Rhythm’
- Rosalie Allen – Country yodel in ‘Wide Rolling Plains’
- Sons of the Pioneers – ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’
- Hank Williams – ‘Honky Tonkin’
- Oak Ridge Boys – ‘Y’all Come Back Saloon’
- Statler Brothers – ‘Flowers on the Wall’
- Patsy Cline – ‘I Fall to Pieces’
By the way, you can skip Charlie Daniels completely. Although he wrote that cool “Devil Went Down to Georgia” song that you used to like, he’s best left for the red states to enjoy.