Fighting — over insults, over ideals (as in war), or just for fun — has been a popular pastime since the first person drew the first breath. There’s a reason the American West was called “wild”: Folks on the frontier seemed ready to throw a punch or unshuck a weapon with the slightest provocation, at least if popular myth is anywhere near the truth.
Nineteenth-century words and phrases relating to fighting, things that could provoke a fight, and means of stopping a fight are below. If you’re of a mind, also check out words for women, insults, outlaw vocabulary, food terms, and gambling.
“Smoke of a .45,” Charles M. Russell, 1908
At outs with: no longer on friendly terms with; from about 1826. Became “on the outs with” around 1900.
Bantam: small, aggressive person; first documented in 1837. Extension of the 1749 name for a a breed of chicken discovered on Bantam, a Dutch colony in Java. As a lightweight class in boxing, use is attested from 1884. “Banty” is a dialectical corruption of the word.
Beat the living daylights out of: thrash, punish, chastise. Americanism; arose 1880s based on the late-18th Century threat to “let daylight into” a foe. The original phrase meant intent to kill by sword, knife, bullet, or other deadly weapon, but as the force of law began to catch up with the U.S.’s western frontier, the phrase was softened to lessen the perceived risk of hanging for murder should the target of the threat be found dead.
Below the belt: unfair; arose 1889 from boxing.
Bulldozer: person who intimidates by violence. Arose during 1876 U.S. presidential election, along with related “bulldose,” meaning “a severe beating” (literally, “dose fit for a bull”). Both were slang associated with aggressive intimidation of Negro voters in the North and the former Confederate states. Bulldozer acquired its current meaning, “ground-clearing tractor,” in the 1930s based on the image of bulls shoving one another around during dominance displays.
Call [someone] out: challenge, especially to a duel or fight. Arose c. 1823.
Cold shoulder: icy reception; deliberate coldness or disregard; a snub. Arose mid-1850s, evidently as a sarcastic reference to the European elite setting out hot feasts for their guests while the poor were able to afford only a cold shoulder of mutton (not a well-regarded meal). Sir Walter Scott is credited with creating the figurative sense c. 1816 by using “cold shoulder of mutton” to convey a deliberate intention to be rid of an unwanted guest. Americans, as usual, clipped the phrase.
Come off the rimrock: back away from a discussion that has turned unfriendly. Attested from the 1860s in the American West.
“Busted,” Charles M. Russell, c. 1920
Comeupance/comeuppance: Get what’s coming to you. 1859, presumably rooted in the phrase “come up,” meaning present oneself for judgment or trial.
Crotchety: irritable, contrary, grouchy. Arose c. 1825 from late-14th Century French crotchet, literally a small hook. In English, crotchet came to mean a perverse, capricious or eccentric notion c. 1800.
Dander: ire, irritation, temper, strong emotion. Entered American English c. 1831: “Don’t get your dander up.” Exact origin unclear, but may have been based on the slightly older (1825) shortening of dandruff (loose flakes of skin; mid-1500s), Spanish redundar (to overflow), or West Indies dunder (fermentation of sugar).
Dustup/dust-up: fight; brawl. Arose c. 1897; Americanism. Most likely a colorful reference to brawlers raising dust as they duked it out, but also may have roots in the late-16th Century usage of dust to mean confusion or disturbance. In the 1680s, to “dust [someone’s] coat” meant to deliver a sound thrashing.
Faceoff/face-off: disagreement (often silent, using only eye contact) that might turn physical. Arose c. 1893 as an extension of the boxing term that first appeared in 1867.
Face the music: Arose 1850 in U.S. congressional debates, probably as a reference to actors facing the orchestra pit—which sat between the audience and the stage—when delivering particularly dramatic lines or soliloquies.
Fired up: angry; arose c. 1824 in the American West. The meaning “throw someone out of a place”—a saloon, for example—arose c. 1871, probably from a play on the two meanings of “discharge”: “to dismiss from a position” and “to fire a gun, the latter of which dates to the 1520s.
Fistiana: anecdotes about pugilists; boxing lore. From 1839.
“Not a Chinaman’s Chance,” Charles M. Russell, 1894
Get in [one’s] hair: persistently annoy, vex, or irk. First appeared in print in the Oregon Statesman in 1851, though the expression undoubtedly is older. Etymologists speculate the phrase originally may have compared an irritating person to head lice.
Gunfight/gun-fight: combat with handguns. American English c. 1889; combination of “gun” and “fight.”
Hold your horses: settle down; take it easy; be patient. Original usage was literal: During harness races at American county fairs, horses picked up on their drivers’ nerves, often resulting in a false start. Consequently, announcers frequently admonished participants to “hold your horses.” First appearance in print: New Orleans Times Picayune, 1844.
Hot air: unsubstantiated statements; empty, exaggerated or pretentious talk; boasting. Probably from observation of a flaccid balloon puffing up and rising as it fills with heated air. Colloquialism; may have arisen as early as 1835-40 but was in common use during the latter half of the 19th Century.
Humps and grumps: surly remarks; a fit of ill humor. Arose c. 1844 from the adjective “grumpy” (c. 1778), which most likely arose as an extension of “grum,” meaning morose or surly (also possibly related to Danish grum, meaning cruel). By 1900, the “humps and” had dropped off and “grump” had become a common term for a disagreeable person. (In this case the adjective appears to have given rise to the noun, instead of vice-versa as was more common.)
Keep your shirt on: be patient; calm down. The Americanism arose c. 1904 from prizefighting. Because organized boxing was illegal in much of the U.S. until the 1920s—not because of the violence, but because gambling and organized crime quickly attached to the sport—pugilists waited to remove their shirts and engage until they were reasonably certain a police raid would not be forthcoming. Men fighting fully clothed was considered a spontaneous brawl; men fighting half-naked indicated forethought.
Knock-down drag-out: violent fight. Arose c. 1859 in the U.S.
Knockout/knock-out: as pertains to general fighting, arose 1887 from the phrase “knock out,” meaning “to stun by a blow for a 10-count,” in boxing. Slang meaning “attractive person” is from 1892. To knock oneself out, meaning “make a great effort,” is from 1936.
“Loops and Swift Horses are Surer than Lead,” Charles M. Russell, 1916
Lather: state of agitation. Arose c. 1839 from the 1650s application of the Old English word for “soap suds” to the violent sweating of horses under stress.
Lock horns: Arose 1839 in the American West from observation of the way cattle butted heads during dominance displays.
Manhandle: to handle roughly. First recorded use 1865, from the earlier nautical meaning “to move by force of men” (instead of using tackle or levers). The nautical connotation arose from the mid-15th Century meaning “to wield a tool”; the 1865 connotation seems more closely related to the late-15th Century common usage meaning “to attack an enemy.”
Mexican standoff: stalemate; impasse. First documented use 1891, though the expression may be older. “Stand-off,” meaning draw or tie, arose c. 1843. Though some sources claim “Mexican standoff” is Australian in origin, a more likely source is Texas, where Mexican bandidos routinely crossed the border for nefarious purposes. Originally, the idiom referred to three mutual enemies facing each other with drawn weapons. If A shot B, C would shoot A, thereby winning the conflict. Everyone wanted to be C, so nobody fired—leaving the dispute unresolved.
Pull in your horns: calm down; back away from a fight. Mid-1800s among cowboys in the American West as a reference to cattle battling with their horns.
Pull up: check a course of action. First recorded use 1808 as a figurative reference to pulling on the reins to stop a horse.
Rough/rough up: beat up or jostle violently; first documented use 1868.
Roundhouse: blow delivered by the fist with a wide sweep of the arm. Arose latter half of the 19th Century from the 1856 use of roundhouse to describe the circular shed with a turntable at the center for repositioning locomotives.
Scrap: fight. First attested 1846, possibly as a variant of scrape, which came to mean “abrasive encounter” or “scheme, villainy, vile intention” in the 1670s.
Scrappy: inclined to fight. First documented appearance 1895, from scrap.
Sockdolager: a heavy, finishing blow; a conclusive argument. First documented appearance 1830 from the 1700s “sock,” meaning “to beat, hit hard, pitch into.” Sockdolager is assumed to have arisen from the conflation of “sock” and “doxology,” meaning finality. The word shifted meaning to “something exceptional” in 1838. “Sockdologising” (confronting with a forceful argument) likely was one of the the last words Abraham Lincoln heard. During the performance of Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin, assassin John Wilkes Booth—an actor who had performed in the play—waited for the humorous line “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologising old man-trap.” Amid the laughter that erupted from the audience, Booth fired the fatal shot.
Smack: hit with an open palm; slap. Attested from 1823; presumed to be imitative of the sound of flesh meeting flesh with force.
Spat: petty quarrel. Arose c. 1804 as American slang. Of unknown origin, but perhaps from the notion of “spitting” words.
“Buccaroos,” Charles M. Russell, 1902
Wild and woolly: untamed; rowdy. Americanism first documented in 1855 in The Protestant Episcopal Church Quarterly Review and Register (“wild and woolly-haired Negrillo”). In the post-Civil War years, as dime novels and newspaper accounts popularized sensational tales about Indians, outlaws, lawmen, land and gold rushes, etc. in the new territories, the alliterative phrase “wild and woolly West” became a popular way for Easterners to describe the entire region west of the Mississippi River.
Winded: tired; out of breath; rendered temporarily breathless. Arose c. 1802 as a boxing term used in reference to the effect of a punch in the stomach.
Yank: sudden blow; cuff. American English from 1818. (Also short for “Yankee” during and after the Civil War.)