Ain’t Nothin’ Better than Cowboy Lingo


Love and Laughter in the Old West





I love writing about the old west.  That was when men were men and women were women, but a cowboy wasn’t a cowboy unless he was wild, woolly and full of fleas.  Of course the heroes we write about are more likely to be tall, dark and handsome, which may be a bit of a tall tale or whizzer.  But as far as the lingo goes, there’s no reason to stretch the blanket —and yes-siree-bob, that’s part of the fun.

Today’s language seems rather dull compared to the colorful expressions and words of yesteryear.  Can you think of  more mouth-pleasing words than hornswoggle, caboodle or skedaddle?  Or what about fiddlefooted, ranktankerous, rumbumptious  or splendiferous? A latte may be the haute cuisine of coffee, but give me an Arbuckle’s any day.

A know-it-all has a saddle to fit every horse, and if someone called you a drowned horse it meant you had a bloated ego.  And when was the last time you heard the weather man describe a dust storm as Oklahoma rain?  Cowboys didn’t just work together they were in cahoots, and if you want to ride your horse fast, you will either  have to burn the breeze or ride a blue streak.

The rebellious part of me delights that my characters can use such words as “ain’t” and “druther” without being cut down.  My eighth grade English teacher would have had a fit.  Of course, back in the 1800s, she’d be more likely to have a conniption (any way you call it,  it serves her right for branding me with an F).

Today’s nicknames seem rather tame compared to Old Fuss and Feathers, Rattlesnake Dick, Cattle Annie. and Crazy Horse Lil



When a cowboy said “hell on wheels” he wasn’t talking about no bikers (double negatives welcome).  He was talking about movable towns that followed the building of railroads.

Job hunters could take a lesson from an old buckaroo who claimed to be born in a hurricane and could handle anything that came his way.  A cowboy didn’t have work experience but he sure did have wrinkles on the horn.  He was also a firm believer that every bull should carry its own tail.  Think you’re right for the job?   I’m your huckleberry meant I’m your man.  Write that on your resume.  

Want to impress someone with your courage? Tell them you know how to die standing up.  Someone dallying too long in the chow line? Yell at them to fire and fall back.  Fallen off the straight and narrow?  What you need is a fire escape (a cowboy’s name for a preacher).   Feeling spooney?  You haven’t lived until you’ve lallygagged on a sparking bench with your beau.

Criminals were called gangs, and a bad guy was a desperado, cattle thief,  gunman or roughneck. Anyone caught messing with the sheriff was escorted to the hoosegow immediately, if not sooner.  

Finally, a word of wisdom to all you greenhorns out there.  Get a wiggle on and chew the cud but stay away from conversation fluid (whiskey)  Tell us your favorite cowboy expression and you’ll make us as happy as a dog with two tails.



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35 thoughts on “Ain’t Nothin’ Better than Cowboy Lingo”

  1. For some reason, I have always loved the term hoosegow for jail. No clue why but it is one I have known since I was a little kid watching westerns.

    Now I do know why I love the term, desperado, and not just because of the Linda Ronstadt/Eagles song. It just strikes me as such a romantic name for a “bad boy”.

    One that makes me laugh is “wearing the bustle wrong”. Think about it…it refers to a pregnant woman!

    Such a fun way to start a Monday.

    Peace, Julie

  2. Julie,
    I agree with you about hoosegow and desperado. I used the “wearing the bustle wrong” in one of my books. I can’t think of a better way to refer to pregnancy. Today, I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to pregnancy as a bump. Nothing matches the romance and humor of the olden days.

    Have a great day!

  3. Hi Margaret! What a fun post! Love the pregnancy reference in your comment to Julie. Very, very visual! And didn’t you love the line in Tombstone where Doc Holliday says, “I’ll be your huckleberry” (or something close). Until your post I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Thanks for a great start to the day.

  4. Thanks, Margaret, for a fun post. Being a Native Texan, and raised pretty poor, but I didn’t know it at the time ’cause everybody else was just about in the same class, I was raised on good ‘ol cowboy slang. I’m still astonished when folks don’t know that “you all ” can be singular or plural while “all you all” is plural. And, if I couldn’t use catawampus I’d have serious trouble explaining how to get from one corner to another while giving directions. Really a fun post. Gotta go ’cause I’m fixin’ to go get the fixin’s out to fix breakfast. Hugs, P

  5. What a great way to start the morning. While I was familiar with a good many of the phrases and have used them, I wasn’t aware of the meaning of some of them – hell on wheels for example. Funny how we use phrases not knowing the origin of them. Also funny how the meanings have changed over the years.
    Had not heard “wearing the bustle wrong”, but what a great description.

    Hope you are all able to stay cool. This is turning into a scorcher of a summer. Any old cowboy phrase for that?

  6. Hi, Margaret. Loved bumbing into you at RWA this weekend! Great to meet one of my favorite authors face-to-face.

    Great cowboy slang examples. They sure add western flavor, don’t they. Great stuff!

  7. Patricia,

    I just got back from Florida and I’m enjoying the relatively cool 79 degree weather of Southern Ca.

    I’m trying to think how a cowboy would describe hot weather. It was called a heat spell rather than a hot spell but I don’t know what other terms were used. Anyone?

  8. Hi Victoria,
    That huckleberry comment puzzled me, too, and still does. Originally, it meant to be low or humble, which is why Mark Twain used the name Huckleberry Finn. He was quoted as saying he wanted to show that Huckleberry was of “lower extraction or degree” to Tom. When or how the meaning changed to mean “I’m your man” is a mystery.

  9. Hi Phyliss,

    Your post made me laugh. How could I have forgotten catawampus/ It means catty-corner, right? Not sure where the wampus came from but it’s a fun word. I’m using it in my next book!

  10. Great post, Margaret! Two of my favourite bits of cowboy slang come from Louis L’Amour. To start off for a place in a hurry was to ‘light a shuck’. And when his Sackett brothers were about to come down hard on the bad guys, they were going to “read ’em from the Book.”

  11. Margaret, I think cowboy slang is fun to read and even more fun to say. Sure does catch someone’s attention really fast. One of my favorite sayings is describing a woman as being full of piss and vinegar. It sure took a man who had more guts than you could hang on a fence to deal with her. Another one that I’ve used several times is “keep your horseback opinions to yourself.”

    Fun post today.

  12. Enjoyed reading the comments.
    I always liked the term the cowboys called prostitutes=soiled doves.
    My favorite saying was “don’t squat with your spurs on” and John Wayne saying “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
    I think Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour had a lot of those sayings in their books.

  13. Hi Jennie,
    Louis L’amour sure did have a lot of language gems in his books. I was lucky to meet him at a conference and he talked similar to how he wrote. He didn’t just write the west, he live it.

    Thank you for stopping by.

  14. Joye,
    Yes, we can’t forget soiled doves but that was only one name for prostitutes. They wre also called crib girls, painted cats, sporting women, hurdy-gurdy girls and, my favorite, ceiling experts.

  15. Linda,
    I love piss and vinegar, too. It was odd that you should mention this as just this morning I was trying to decide if my publisher would let me use it in an inspirational novel. I also love horseback opinions. I must remember to throw that out the next time I’m in an argument. It reminds me of another fav: Sold his saddle, said of a cowboy who hit bottom. Good to hear from you!

  16. Margaret,

    What a great post! I love this! I have always enjoyed slang–the nature of the language, the propriety vs. the impropriety. My mom was always a stickler for that. Growing up, I developed the habit (as an Oklahoma kid) of dropping my “g’s” –“somethin'” rather than “something”, etc. My mom tried her best to correct it, but it is a habit I have to this day, if I’m not careful about it. Great “lingo”–seems like I have a reference book around here somewhere that is full of great cowboy terms–you just jogged my memory with this post–now I have to go find it. LOL
    Cheryl P.

  17. Hi Cheryl,
    Dropping the “Gs” is what the heroine in A Lady Like Sarah does. She never got it right and I hope you don’t either (no matter what your mom says).

    Thank you for writing! Or is that writin’?

  18. MARGARET!!!! I’m writing a stagecoach hold up right now and I’ve used every possible word for outlaws, gang, bandit, whatever…but I haven’t used desperado…YAY! LOL I’ll go apply that word to my pile of thesaurus spewing right now. 🙂

  19. Ran across a nice Western dictionary on a clearance shelf probably a decade ago. The book is easy to find for cheap on or Amazon. Check out:

    Western Lore and Language: A Dictionary for Enthusiasts of the American West by Thomas L. Clark

  20. Also, lots of your Western terms derive from Spanish. Desperado is straight out of Espanol. Hoosegow is a Yankee spelling from juzgado, which is technically a courtroom, but it’s easy to see the connection.

    So put a Spanish-English dictionary on your thesaurus shelf.

    Or maybe watch some Zorro and turn on the captioning. You’ll be surprised at what turns up.

  21. That’s some fancy talkin’ there! I found a great website with hundreds of terms on it. I’d really have to go it through to find all those great terms. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Rich, I thought I had every Western dictionary written but you’ve given me a new one to track down. Ah, yes, a Spanish-English dictionary is a must, but Zorro? I haven’t seen the movie for years but I’m definitely going to rent it again. Thank you for your helpful comments!

  23. Hi Jeannene,
    I know several websites with all kinds of Western terms. What did we ever do before the Internet? Oh, now, I remember, we went to the library. Thank you for stopping by.

  24. My husband who is a very mild mannered man and does not swear has been heard to use ‘for corn sake’ when something isn’t going right. I love it.

  25. Hey Margaret, Zorro has seen many, many iterations over the years, both in television and film. Probably radio, too, way back when. So don’t settle for just the Antonio Banderas flicks, though they were very good. I personally like the Disney series starring Guy Williams from the late ’50s and early ’60s. But you can find Zorro films dating to the 1920s and from nearly every decade since.

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