Cowboy slang and phrases

It’s my father’s birthday this month. A WWII vet, he’ll turn 90 years old. To mark this entrance into a new decade, he’s decided it might be time to retire. Yes, you read that right. He’s still working, part-time, at his age. He also continues the habit of running every morning, Monday through Friday, and then completes a complicated array of calisthenics he learned during his years in the Navy. I could continue with all the things I admire most about him but, instead, I’m going to share my top two of his favorite sayings/teachings he’s shared with me through the years.

If you lie down with dogs you’re gonna come up with fleas.

You can make a pretty woman drunk, but you can’t make a drunk woman pretty

I love both of these sayings because, well, they’re true. My daddy also loves a good “cowboy” movie. A southern gentleman to the bone, he relates to the code of ethics and the way good always wins over evil. I especially love the cowboy slang in the movies. But I’ve always wondered, is it real? Where did all those terms come from, anyway? And, um, what do they mean? I went surfing on the web recently and found a great site that breaks down many of the most popular slang, phrases, etc.

Here are some of my favorite slang terms and their meanings.

Airin’ the lungs: a cowboy term for cussing.
Barrel Fever: a hangover
Prayer Book: a small packed of papers used to roll cigarettes (also called a bible)
John B.: a cowboy hat, named after John B. Stetson
Marble Orchard: a graveyard
Taffy: flattery
Kick up a row: create a disturbance
Persuader: a gun
Pie eater: a country boy, a rustic
Sold His Saddle: disgraced

Renee Ryan
Award-winning, multi-published author Renee Ryan sold her first book by winning the 2001 inaugural Dorchester/Romantic Times New Historical Voice Contest. She sold her second book to Harlequin Love Inspired Historical and has since sold nine more manuscripts to Love Inspired and Love Inspired Historical.
Updated: December 9, 2012 — 3:46 pm

22 Comments

  1. Renee, your dad sounds like an AMAZING man, he definitely has a lot more get up and go than I do!

    One of my favorite cowboy sayings is: Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.

  2. Happy birthday to your dad! Ninety years is something to celebrate, and both his sayings are priceless. I thoroughly enjoyed your list, particularly “marble orchard.” There’s real poetry in that description of a graveyard!

  3. Winnie! If I fail to exercise (which is far too often these days) I think of my father and feel like such a slug! He’s a true example. I love, love, love your saying. Sort of sums it all up, doesn’t it?

    Hi Vickie! Marble orchard is definitely a colorful description. 😉

  4. I love these sayings, Renee. Great, unusual slang.
    And you’re so blessed to still have your dad. 90 years old. Are you TALKING to him? Are you getting him to tell his stories of war and living through all the history that passed. And his parents and what their lives were like and his courtship of your mom.
    I talked to my dad a LOT and he’s passed away now and I still wish I’d talked to him more. so much history is lost when our older generation died. Both personal history and the simple lives of someone who’s lived world history.

  5. You’re so lucky to have your dad, Renee. And what an example he sets for us all. My own father was a WWII naval officer, but he’s been gone seven years. I still miss him.

    A fun cowboy term that comes to mind is “coffin varnish” used to describe really bad coffee.

  6. Wonderful post, Renee. I love cowboy slang. Such humor and poetry in those simple words.

    You are so fortunate to have your father still going strong at 90. What a blessing! May he reach 100+ with just as much gumption and grace.

  7. Renee, I love these cowboy slang phrases. They sure are colorful and add so much authentication and atmosphere to a story. One of my mom’s favorites was “I didn’t ride into town on a turnip wagon.” She was always saying that as well as a lot of others. A Bible-Thumper. Prairie wool was grass. Like you said, there’s a bunch of these and all are sort of humorous.

    Wishing you a Merry Christmas!

  8. Fun stuff, Renee. I like “don’t squat with your spurs on.”
    Merry Christmas to you and your dad, too!

  9. Renee, I LOVE your father. We need more men like him. It’s almost impossible to choose a favorite cowboy saying; there are so many great ones. This is from a Cowboy’s Guide to Romance: A woman has to be in the mood; a man just has to be in the room.

    Merry Christmas!

  10. My favorite saying when my children were young and didn’t want to leave a place we were visiting was “If we don’t leave, we can’t come back.” I am still using it today when the grandchildren don’t want to go home. For some strange reason, children see the logic in it, but not the irony.

    I am so glad your dad is still going strong. Must be from good pioneer stock : )

  11. Thanks for sharing on your dad… I hope you have or will set him down & just record his thoughts and memories.. You always think that there’s plenty of time…
    I don’t know any cowboy slang..

  12. Happy Birthday to your Dad! My brothers were in WWII and my older brother died last year at age 86.
    On a happier note… Our cowboys, in my family go into the back country every summer. They approach a camp and before they dismount, they holler “Hello the camp!” This way they won’t be told to leave because they are still mounted. Here in the Valley, they still do that when they approach the house, “Hello the house!” It’s an old custom, but most old cowboys do that in camp. You don’t dismount until you know your are welcome!
    Love the rest of your sayings. I have heard some, but most are new. And that is a twist to me.

  13. Mary, YES, I talk to him often. I’ve even started recording some of his stories, thinking the rest of the family would love to hear them, too. It’s been a lot of fun. He also helped me with my novel, COURTING THE ENEMY, set in his hometown during WWII. He gave me lots of anecdotal information, enough to create a genuine feel to the story. I know this because of lots of reader mail telling me they remember it just like that!

    Elizabeth, I’m sorry to hear about your loss. After losing my mom I’ve been especially diligent in keeping our relationship strong.

    Karen, from your lips…

  14. Oh, Linda, I love praire wool! Great phrasing. Tanya, don’t squat with your spurs on seems a wise saying indeed. 😉

    Margaret! Spew alert! I am now wiping diet coke off my shirt.

  15. Patricia, excellent saying. Sounds like something Yogi would say, simple yet wise. It over ’til it’s over! 😉

    CateS, excellent advice. I wish I had more time to do so.

    Hello the Mary!!! (couldn’t resist)

  16. I loved watching westerns on Saturday mornings more than I loved cartoons.

    Thanks for the education!

    Peace, Julie

  17. You are so lucky to still have your dad at that age. My dad was a WW II and he has been gone for about 14 years now but he passed away from a lawn mower accident at the age of 71, still miss him though. He was big into westerns also, read them all the time. Loved you saying and they are so true.

  18. Julie, we are sooo sympatico, my friend!!! Wow, Quilt Lady, what a tragedy. I’m sorry to hear that. Men of that generation do so loved their westerns.

  19. How wonderful that you are recording your dad. Mine was also a Vet of WWII and died just 6 weeks short of his 90th. How I wish we had more of his stories written down.

    Loved the sayings and probably have heard of several but loved the Marble Orchard the best!

  20. Hi Connie J! Marble Orchard seems to be the clear-cut winner. 😉

  21. My grandmother was a walking dictionary of phrases. We grew up with the laying down with dogs. My favorite saying of hers was “nothing goes over the devils back that doesn’t come back under his belly”. She was something else and I miss so very much. She would tell us when she passed to make sure we didn’t put miss on her tombstone cause she hadn’t missed a thing.

    Best of all she always told us to never turn down anything free even if we threw it away later.

  22. Hi Sherry,

    Your grandmother sounds amazing. I love her advice about never turning down free stuff. What a wise woman!

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