Tag: Wild West Words

Wild West Words: An Outlaw by Any Other Name

Kathleen Rice Adams: classic tales of the Old West...that never forget the power of love

If you’ve ever read a western novel or watched a western movie, no doubt you’ve run across a whole herd of quaint terms that add character to the story. Where did those terms come from, why did folks use them, and when were they popular?

The Outlaw

Thomas Mitchell, Jack Buetel, and Walter Huston in The Outlaw (HowardHughesProductions, 1941) [promotional image]

Here are some of the words and phrases used to describe the bad boys of the Old West. Some of them are older than one might imagine. Western historical romance authors may be dismayed to find others are newer than they hoped.

Buscadero: gunfighter. From the Spanish buscadero, literally a searcher. The origin of the slang usage is obscure; possibly “seeking trouble.”

Bushwhacker: cowardly enemy who strikes from ambush. Americanism; arose c. 1809. Oddly, the verb “bushwhack” arose later, c. 1837. During the American Civil War (at least from 1862-1865), “bushwhacker” acquired a less-pejorative connotation, meaning any irregular who took to the woods to strike from cover and then vanish. The term was applied in equal measure to both friend and foe.

Cabrón: an outlaw of low breeding and even lower principles. In Spanish, the word means “goat.” Origin of the slang usage is obscure.

Cold-blooded: unfeeling, dispassionate, cruel. Arose c. 1828 from the old (1600s) notion that excitement increased human blood temperature. Reptiles have been called cold-blooded since about 1600, and the reptilian image also played into the description as applied to killers and other reprehensible sorts who acted without apparent regret.

The Law and the Outlaw

Promotional flier for
The Law and the Outlaw, 1913

Cold lead: from the mid-1800s until the 1920s, a bullet. About 1920, usage changed and “hot lead” became slang for bullets. The reason is unclear.

Cowboy of the Pecos: rustler, based on the notion safety could be found in the lawless area around Texas’ Pecos River.

Dressed to kill: double entendre meaning not only that a man wearing two guns most likely was a killer, but also that wearing a double rig (a holstered pistol on each hip) made it difficult for a gunman to do anything with either hand without implying a threat; therefor, dudes who adopted the practice were likely to be killed.

Dry-gulch: to ambush someone, particularly in a cowardly manner.

Get the drop on: to obtain a marked advantage, especially with the help of a gun. Probably dates to the California gold rush of 1849, when claim-jumpers sometimes seemed to materialize from the ether before hijacking a profitable claim at gunpoint. First documented appearance in print 1869 in Alexander K. McClure’s Three Thousand Miles through the Rocky Mountains: “So expert is he with his faithful pistol, that the most scientific of rogues have repeatedly attempted in vain to get ‘the drop’ on him.”

GTT: on the wrong side of the law. Short for “gone to Texas,” this usage dates at least to the Civil War, when deserters and other former soldiers from both armies — suddenly unemployed and inured to violence — migrated to still-wild, wide-open Texas, “lost” their names, and took up outlawry. (Originally, “Gone to Texas” was the phrase families ruined by the financial panic of 1819 painted on doors and fence signs before lighting out to begin anew in greener pastures south of the Mexican border.) In his 1857 book Journey through Texas, Frederick Law Olmstead noted that many newcomers to the state were suspected of having skipped out on something “discreditable” back home. Thomas Hughes, in his 1884 book G.T.T., wrote “When we want to say that it is all up with some fellow, we just say, ‘G.T.T.’ as you’d say, ‘gone to the devil,’ or ‘gone to the dogs.’”

Days on the Range (Hands Up!)
by Frederic Remington

Gun: until the early 20th Century, cannon or long guns like shotguns and rifles. Handguns were called pistols or — after Samuel Colt introduced his first patented repeating revolver in 1836 — six-guns or six-shooters.

Gunman: shootist; gunfighter. First recorded use 1903 in a New York newspaper. (Gunsman, with an S in the middle, arose on the American frontier during the Revolutionary period.)

Gunslinger: No such term existed in the Old West. The word is pure Hollywood, from the early days of western movies.

Gun shark: gunfighter. Arose mid-1800s from the earlier (1700s) use of “shark” to indicate a voracious or predatory person, based on the reputation of the fish.

Heeled up: armed. Arose ca. 1866 from the 1560s usage of “heel” to mean attaching spurs to a gamecock’s feet.

Hogleg: large revolver. Originally referred to the Bisley single-action Colt (first manufactured 1894), but later generalized to any big pistol.

Holdup: a robbery. American English colloquialism, 1851. The verb “to hold up,” meaning “to stop by force and rob,” didn’t arise until 1887, apparently from the robbers’ command to raise hands. “Hold up,” meaning to delay, dates to 1837.

Hustler: thief, especially one who roughs up his victims. Arose 1825. Sense of “energetic worker” is from 1884; sense of “prostitute” dates from 1924.

Lam: to run off. U.S. slang dating to 1886; of uncertain origin. “On the lam,” meaning flight to avoid prosecution or consequences, arose c. 1897.

Jesse James' Oath, or Tracked to Death by W.B. Lawson (Street & Smith Publishers, Dec. 1897)

Jesse James’ Oath, or Tracked to Death by W.B. Lawson (Street & Smith Publishers, Dec. 1897)

On the cuidado: running from the law. From the Spanish warning ten cuidado, which means “be careful.”

Owlhoot: outlaw. “Riding the owlhoot trail” referred to a man who had left the straight and narrow to become an outlaw. One explanation of origin came from a man living in the Indian Territory of eastern Oklahoma around 1870. He claimed the name came about from the Indians in the area using owl hoots to signal danger or someone’s approach. Another tale indicates outlaws were called “owlhoots” because, when they were getting ready to ambush somebody in the dark, they would imitate the hooting of owls to signal one another.

Pecos swap: theft. Again, based on the reputation of Texas’s Pecos River area.

Pistolero: expert with a handgun. Adopted from Mexican Spanish, in which the word has the same meaning.

Rattlesnaked: ambushed (literally or figuratively) in a particularly devious or cunning way. Dates at least to 1818.

Safecracker (also safe-cracker): individual with a talent for liberating money from locked vaults. Arose ca. 1897, as a reference to robbers who used dynamite to thwart security boxes.

Shootist: expert marksman. Arose 1864.

Sidewinder: dangerously cunning or devious person. Arose American West ca. 1875 as a reference to some species of rattlesnakes’ “peculiar lateral movement.”

Stickup: robbery at gunpoint. Arose 1887 from the earlier (1846) verb “stick up,” meaning to rob someone at gunpoint. The phrase “stick up for,” meaning defend, is from 1823. The archaic noun “stick-up” arose ca. 1857 as a colloquial term for a stand-up collar.

 

Wild West Words: Ladies’ Night

Kathleen Rice Adams: classic tales of the Old West...that never forget the power of love.March is Women’s History Month in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. (Canada celebrates Women’s History Month in October.) Setting aside a special month to celebrate women’s history always has struck me as a mite amusing, because without women there would be no human history.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Women’s History Month traces its origins to the original International Women’s Day, March 8, 1911. In 1980, Jimmy Carter, then President of the United States, expanded the recognition of women’s roles in society to a week. In 1987, the U.S. Congress declared all of March Women’s History Month, but they didn’t make the designation permanent. Each year since (until 2017), the President has proclaimed March Women’s History Month.

Regardless whether Women’s History Month continues in an official capacity or becomes an informal observance, there is no doubt women have changed the world in ways too numerous to mention. Most of us would rather be called “the fairer sex” than “the weaker sex” — but we’ll let men call us whatever (polite) term they desire, because we know who’s really in charge.  😉

Women in 19th Century America knew who was in charge, too. Perhaps nowhere was that more evident than in new vocabulary that entered the lexicon during the period. (How’s that for a segue?) Here are some of the more colorful terms.

Women with "safety bicycles," 1890s

Women with “safety bicycles,” 1890s

California widow: a woman whose husband is away from her for an extended period. Americanism; arose c. 1849 during the California Gold Rush.

Call girl: prostitute who makes appointments by phone; arose c. 1900. To call someone, meaning to use a phone for conversation, arose in 1889 along with the telephone.

Catty: devious and spiteful; c. 1886 from the previous “cattish.” The meaning “pertaining to cats” dates to 1902.

Cute: pretty, 1834 from American English student slang. Previously (1731), as a shortened form of acute, the word meant “clever.”

Drag: women’s clothing worn by a man. 1870s theater slang from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor.

A working girl of the late 1800s

A working girl of the late 1800s

Fancy woman: high-dollar whore or a kept woman; possibly from the 1751 use of “fancy” to mean “ornamental.”

Fast trick: loose woman. Of unknown origin, but possibly related to the 15th Century use of the noun “trick” to mean “trifles,” or pretty things with little value. By 1915, “trick” had come to mean a prostitute’s client.

Feathered out: dressed up.

Filly: a young, unmarried woman (literally, a young mare).

Frump, frumpy: cross, unstylish person; sour-looking, unfashionable. The noun arose c. 1817, possibly imitative of a derisive snort. The adverb followed c. 1825. The slang etymology is a bit obscure, although earlier uses of the noun frump meant “bad temper” (1660s) and “cross-tempered” (1746), both of which may have derived from the verb frump, which in the 1550s meant “to mock or browbeat.” All senses may have descended from the late-14th-Century verb frumple, “to wrinkle; crumple.”

Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young's 19th wife. She divorced him.

Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s 19th wife. She divorced him.

Grass widow: divorcee

Gyp: female dog; more polite form of “bitch.” American slang from about 1840 as a shortened form of gypsy, presumably in reference to stray dogs’ wandering nature. By 1889, gyp’s meaning had shifted to “cheat or swindle,” also based on gypsies’ perceived behavior.

High-strung: temperamental, excitable, nervous; c. 1848. Evidently based on earlier (1748) musical term referring to stringed instruments.

Hot flashes: in the menopausal sense, attested from 1887.

Hysteria: mental disorder characterized by volatile emotions and overly dramatic or attention-seeking behavior. When the word arose in 1801 (based on the Latin medical term hysteric), it was applied solely to women and often resulted in their confinement to an asylum. In 1866, clitoridectomy was proposed as a cure.

Lightskirt: woman of questionable virtue. American slang. Date unknown, but most likely from the notion loose women’s skirts lay over fewer petticoats than traditional skirts of the time and therefor were easier to raise.

Dolly Adams, exotic dancer in San Francisco, 1890s

Dolly Adams, exotic dancer in San Francisco, 1890s

Painted lady: any woman who wore obvious makeup, primarily entertainers and prostitutes. From the 1650s use of “paint” to mean makeup or rouge.

Scarlet woman, scarlet lady: prostitute. From the 13th Century use of scarlet to mean “red with shame.”

Soiled dove: prostitute; generally considered the kindest of such terms. Most likely a conflation of the 13th Century definition of “soil” (to defile or pollute with sin) and the Christian use of “dove” to indicate gentleness or deliverance.

Sporting house: brothel. Arose latter half of the 19th Century as a combination of “sporting” (early 1600s for “playful”) and “house.”

Sporting ladies, sporting women: prostitutes. Shortening and modification of 1640s “lady of pleasure” by substitution of early 1600s “sporting” (playful). Arose in America during the latter half of the 19th Century in conjunction with “sporting house.”

Vaulting house: brothel. Conflation of “vault,” meaning a vigorous leap (mid-15th Century), and “house.”

 

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Wild West Words: Grub and Hooch

Kathleen Rice Adams: classic tales of the Old West...that never forget the power of love

The final three decades of the 19th Century — 1870 to 1900 — compose the period most people think of when they hear the term “Wild West.” Prior to the Civil War, westward expansion in the U.S. was a pioneering movement, and the period around the turn of the 20th Century was dominated by the Industrial Revolution. But in a scant thirty years, the American cowboy raised enough hell to leave a permanent mark on history.

Round Up on the Musselshell, Charles M. Russell, 1919

Round Up on the Musselshell, Charles M. Russell, 1919

Cowboys also left a permanent mark on American English. A whole lexicon of new words and phrases entered the language. Some were borrowed from other cultures. Others embodied inventive new uses for words that once meant something else. Still others slid into the vernacular sideways from Lord only knows where.

One of the best ways to imbue a western with a sense of authenticity is to toss in a few bits of period-appropriate jargon or dialect. That’s more difficult than one might imagine. I’m constantly surprised to discover words and phrases are either much younger or much older than I expected. Sometimes the stories behind the terms are even better than the terms themselves.

In case you ever find yourself in the midst of a herd of hunky 19th Century cowboys, here are some terms with which they be familiar. All arose in the U.S. during the 1800s.

Ball: a shot of liquor. Originated in the American West c. 1821; most commonly heard in the phrase “a beer and a ball,” used in saloons to order a beer and a shot of whiskey. “Ball of fire” meant a glass of brandy.

Barrelhouse: cheap saloon, often attached to a brothel. American English; arose c. 1875 as a reference to the barrels of beer or booze typically stacked along the walls.

Bear sign: donuts. Origin obscure, but the word was common on trail drives. Any chuckwagon cook who could — and would — make bear sign was a keeper.

Laugh Kills Lonesome, Charles M. Russell

Laugh Kills Lonesome, Charles M. Russell

Bend an elbow: have a drink.

Benzene: cheap liquor, so called because it set a man’s innards on fire from his gullet to his gut.

Booze: liquor. Prior to 1821, the word was used as a verb meaning “to drink heavily.” The change in usage may have had something to do with clever marketing on the part of Philadelphia distiller E.G. Booz.

Bottom of the barrel: of very low quality. Cicero is credited with coining the phrase, which he used as a metaphor comparing the basest elements of Roman society to the sediment left by wine.

Budge: liquor. Origin unknown, but in common use by the latter half of the 1800s. A related term, budgy, meant drunk.

Cantina: barroom or saloon. Texas and southwestern U.S. dialect from 1892; borrowed from Spanish canteen.

Chuck: food. Arose 1840-50 in the American West; antecedents uncertain.

Dead soldier: empty liquor bottle. Although the term first appeared in print in 1913, common usage is much older. Both “dead man” and “dead marine” were recorded in the context before 1892. All of the phrases most likely arose as a pun: “the spirits have departed.”

Dive: disreputable bar. American English c. 1871, probably as a figurative and literal reference to the location of the worst: beneath more reputable, mainstream establishments.

Goobers or goober peas: peanuts. American English c. 1833, likely of African origin.

Camp Cook's Troubles, Charles M. Russell

Camp Cook’s Troubles, Charles M. Russell

Grub up: eat. The word “grub” became slang for food in the 1650s, possibly as a reference to birds eating grubs or perhaps as a rhyme for “bub,” which was slang for drink during the period. 19th Century American cowboys added “up” to any number of slang nouns and verbs to create corresponding vernacular terms (i.e., “heeled up” meant armed, c. 1866 from the 1560s usage of “heel” to mean attaching spurs to a gamecock’s feet).

Gun wadding: white bread. Origin unknown, although visual similarity to the cloth or paper wrapped around the ball in muzzle-loaded weapons is likely.

Hooch: cheap whiskey, c. 1897. From Hoochinoo, the name of an Alaskan native tribe whose distilled liquor was a favorite with miners during the Klondike gold rush.

Jigger: 1.5-ounce shot glass; also, the volume of liquor itself. American English, 1836, from the earlier (1824) use of jigger to mean an illicit distillery. Origin unknown, but may be an alteration of “chigger” (c. 1756), a tiny mite or flea.

Kerosene: cheap liquor. (See benzene.)

Mescal: a member of the agave family found in the deserts of Mexico and the southwestern U.S., as well as an intoxicating liquor fermented from its juice. The word migrated to English from Aztec via Mexican Spanish before 1828. From 1885, mescal also referred to the peyote cactus found in northern Mexico and southern Texas. Dried disks containing psychoactive ingredients, often used in Native American spiritual rituals, were called “mescal buttons.”

Mexican strawberries: dried beans.

The Herd Quitter, Charles M. Russell

The Herd Quitter, Charles M. Russell

Red-eye: inferior whiskey. American slang; arose c. 1819, most likely as a reference to the physical appearance of people who drank the stuff. The meaning “overnight commercial airline flight that arrives early in the morning” arose 1965-70.

Roostered: drunk, apparently from an over-imbiber’s tendency to get his tail feathers in an uproar over little to nothing, much like a male chicken guarding a henhouse. The word “rooster” is an Americanism from 1772, derived from “roost cock.” Colonial Puritans took offense when “cock” became vulgar slang for a part of the human male anatomy, so they shortened the phrase.

Sop: gravy. Another trail-drive word, probably carried over from Old English “sopp,” or bread soaked in liquid. Among cowboys, using the word “gravy” marked the speaker as a tenderfoot.

Stodgy: of a thick, semi-solid consistency; primarily applied to food. Arose c. 1823-1825 from stodge (“to stuff,” 1670s). The noun form, meaning “dull or heavy,” arose c. 1874.

Tiswin (also tizwin): a fermented beverage made by the Apache. The original term probably was Aztecan for “pounding heart,” filtered through Spanish before entering American English c. 1875-80.

Tonsil varnish: whiskey.

Tornado juice: whiskey.

 

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