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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16 thoughts on “Wild West Words: Ladies’ Night”

  1. Fun post. Thank you. I really–truly–love learning the etymology of words. I guess the only ones I could identify with here, though, would be “high-strung” because of playing guitar, and maybe cute not for the appearance part but for “acute”? Anyway, it made me curious and so I happened upon the following article (from a University of Cambridge project) called, “When ‘Mistress’ Meant ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss’ Meant ‘Prostitute’:The weird history of the female title by ALEXANDRA BUXTON, September 12, 2014.


    The whole article is interesting, to me anyway, as an adjunctto this wonderful blog, so I suggest it, but here are some snippets:

    “Few people realize that ‘Mistress’ is the root word of both of the abbreviations ‘Mrs,’ and ‘Miss,’ just as Mr is an abbreviation of ‘Master.’ The ways that words derived from Mistress have developed their own meanings is quite fascinating and shifts in these meanings can tell us a lot about the changing status of women in society, at home and in the workplace.”

    “Throughout history “mistress” was a term with a multiplicity of meanings, like so many forms of female address. In his Dictionary of 1755, Samuel Johnson defined mistress as: “1. A woman who governs; correlative to subject or servant; 2. A woman skilled in anything; 3. A woman teacher; 4. A woman beloved and courted; 5. A term of contemptuous address; 6. A whore or concubine.” Neither “mistress” nor “Mrs” bore any marital connotation whatsoever for Dr. Johnson.

    …“Until the 19th century, most women did not have any prefix before their name. Mrs and, later, Miss were both restricted to those of higher social standing. Women on the bottom rungs of the social scale were addressed simply by their names.”

    …“Mrs was the exact equivalent of Mr. Either term described a person who governed servants or apprentices, in Johnson’s terms—we might say a person with capital. Once we adopt Johnson’s understanding of the term (which was how it was used in the 18th century), it becomes clear that ‘Mrs’ was more likely to indicate a businesswoman than a married woman. So the women who took membership of the London Companies in the 18th century, all of whom were single and many of whom were involved in luxury trades, were invariably known as ‘Mrs,’ as the men were ‘Mr.’ Literally, they were masters and mistresses of their trades.”

    “…but Mrs did not definitively signify a married woman until around 1900.”

    There are more arguments back and forth in this article but this is probably too long already.

    • Wow, Eliza — what fascinating information! Huge thanks for sharing the snippets and the link. I’ve bookmarked the article for future reference.

      This is one of the reasons I enjoy blogging. I learn something new in the comments every time!

      Big hugs to you! 🙂

  2. Fun post, Kathleen. I was struck by the pictures of the working girl and the exotic dancer. They wore more clothes than most of the women today. I’ll bet they’d be shocked to see these swimsuits, short shorts and other apparel that women wear all the time today. I hadn’t heard the term California widow. Appropriate though. 🙂

    Thanks for the list of interesting terms!

    • You’re most welcome. Those images tickle me every time I look at them. “Exotic dancers,” while scandalous for the period, I’m sure, were significantly more tame than what we think of gyrating in “gentlemen’s clubs” today, huh? (I love the term “gentlemen” in that context, too. The euphemism seems to be nothing new. In the 19th century, high-dollar cathouses were called “gentlemen’s parlors.” 😀 )

  3. Kathleen, I hope things are going well for you. Thanks for this entertaining and informative post. I had heard all the terms, but didn’t know about clitoridectomy as a supposed cure for hysteria. Yikes. Glad I’ve not been diagnosed for this!

    • Me, too, Caroline! 😀 In the 19th century, women were diagnosed as “hysterical” if they disobeyed their husbands, wore pants, cursed, or engaged in any number of other behaviors we consider perfectly acceptable today. A diagnosis of hysteria usually meant consignment to an insane asylum, and I understand it wasn’t all that hard to “encourage” a medical professional to render such a diagnosis.

      Thanks for the well-wishes. 🙂

  4. Awesome terms, Kathleen! I just love all the info you impart. And it reminds me of a book I am currently reading, Pioneer Women, about the settlement of Kansas because–half the pioneers there who worked their keesters off were women LOL. Oh, and a woman wanting a divorce could also be committed to an asylum by her husband. Sheesh.

  5. There are certainly many name for women of ill repute. Men must have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about prostitutes. Interesting information on terms.
    I do not get the reasoning for Grass Widow for Divorcee. There is an obvious rationale and connection between the other words/phrases and their development. I can find no connection between these two.

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