What do you call a group of cowboys? Don’t know? I didn’t either until I read an Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton.
Most of what Lipton calls terms of venery were codified between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. I must say our early ancestors sure did have a great sense of humor. Who else could have come up with such delightful terms as a rash of dermatologists, a prickle of porcupines, or transparency of toupees?
So what do you call a slew of cowpokes? Why a saunter of cowboys, of course! Here are some more terms of venery from the Old West. Some you might already know:
A spread of Texans A drove of cattle A coalition of miners A string of ponies. A quiver of arrows A trace of bounty hunters A stud of poker players A herd of harlots A streak of gamblers An obstinacy of buffaloes A converting of preachers A hangout of nudists (Couldn’t resist throwing that one in)
So dear browse of readers, Some of the more familiar terms that have lasted through the years are den of thieves, flight of stairs and comedy of errors. Can you think of any others? I can’t wait to see your blizzard of quotes.
What would happen if two people unknowingly owned the same dog?
Read Margaret Brownley’s story Dog Days of Summer Bride.
The only good reason to ride a bull is to meet a nurse
Recently I read that the American cowboy wouldn’t have survived “lonesome” had it not been for his “guts and his hoss.” The author got it only partly right. For the cowboy had one more weapon of survival under his Stetson: his sense of humor.
Seeing the funny side of life in the Old West was just as vital, if not more so, than a cowboy’s horse or six-gun. Those early buckaroos survived long hours in the saddle under the most difficult conditions with jokes, horseplay and cock and bull stories.
No campsite was complete without a tall tale or two. Cowboys didn’t experience weather like the rest of us. No sirree. One cowpuncher told about winter being so cold they couldn’t hear the foreman’s orders. “The words froze as they came outta his mouth. We had to break them off one by one so we could tell what he was sayin’.”
The wind was a popular subject. “You think this wind is bad? You ain’t seen nothin’.” Cowboys talked about feeding their chickens buckshot so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind. Not to be outdone some claimed it was so windy a chicken laid the same egg five times.
Don’t dig for water under the outhouse.
California’s current drought is nothing compared to what those cowboys of yesteryear experienced. “One drought was so bad the cactus took to a-chasing after dogs.”
Texas was reportedly the healthiest state. So healthy, in fact, no one ever died there naturally. They needed the assistance of a bullet to accomplish that feat. More than one Texan was caught crossing the border just so he could “ride to the great beyond.”
Perhaps the most amusing rivalries in the Old West pitted cowboys against railroaders. Cowboys had little patience with the “bullheaded Irishmen” who stampeded their cattle. In turn, railroaders thought cowboys a bunch of troublemakers—and for good reason.
One railcar filled with smoke when a cowboy attempted to cook a steak on the train’s coal stove. Another cowpoke, on the way to meeting his best gal, shocked women passengers by stripping down to his long johns so he could don his new suit.
When a cowboy’s too old to set a bad example,
he hands out good advice.
One foreman befuddled railroad officials by sending a wire requesting cars to ship 2,500 sea lions. The foremen figured his cattle had swum across so many streams that “sea lions” aptly described his sirloins.
Railroaders dished out as good as they got. One cowboy learned the hard way not to travel without a ticket when the train he was riding came to a screeching stop and left him stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Another cowboy boarded a train and when asked for his ticket pulled out his six-gun, declaring it the only ticket he needed. The conductor convinced him otherwise by returning with a rifle and sticking it under the cowboy’s nose.
Cowboys didn’t just laugh at these antics like regular folks. Oh, no. They’d sit ’round a campfire “grinnin’ like a weasel peekin’ in a henhouse.”
So when is the last time you grinned like a weasel? What tall tale, anecdote or family memory would you share around a campfire?
What they’re saying about Undercover Bride
Expect some fun reading while the detective team attempts to unmask a pair of train robbers and murderers. That’s how Margaret Brownley writes. Western mystery with humor rolling throughout, like tumbleweeds on Main Street.-Harold Wolf, Amazon
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is getting the words right. How did they say goodbye in the 1700s? Or greet each other after the Civil War? And when did the guard on a train engine change from horse catcher to cow catcher?
These are just a couple of the treasures that can be found in my favorite research books I Hear America Talking and Listening to America Talk by Stuart Berg Flexner. The books not only give a fascinating peek into the past, but keep me from using a word before its time.
And You Thought You Knew
Word meanings have changed through the years, sometimes dramatically. The word cowboy is a good example. Today, it might conjure up an image of a romantic hero, but it was originally a disparaging term for colonial settlers who let their cows roam rather than plow the land. Wait. It gets worse. During the Revolutionary War cowboy was a term for loyalist guerrillas who used cowbells to ambush patriotic farmers.
Fooling Around Victorian Style
I write romance so I’m especially interested in courting terms. Oddly enough—terms changed every decade starting with the 17th century when couples billed and cooed. I find this interesting since TV and other media wasn’t around to influence language.
Skipping forward to the 1860s the word lollygag meant to kiss and caress. (Ten years later the word meant to waste time.) During the 1870s couples were said to be lovey dovey, but by the end of the decade couples walked out together. By 1890 couples favored sitting in the parlor to walking. That’s because they were too busy making goo-goo eyes to watch where they were going.
I recently had a heroine fall on her patootie. That word has only been around since the 1920s and originally meant girl. So I knew I couldn’t use it. Oddly enough the backside seems to be the body part with the most synonyms. Much to my surprise I discovered that the word fanny has been around since the 1860s, though no one knows for sure who Fanny was and why her name was used in such an odd way. Back porch was used in the 1880s and the modern sounding butt appeared in writing as early as 1859.
With all this talk about rear ends, it’s surprising that Victorians considered the word legs crude. If they admitted to owning such things they always referred to them as limbs or stems. As for bosoms, they hardly seemed to exist much before World War II, at least in print.
I’m careful not to use objectionable language, but there are times that “oh, darn” just doesn’t cut it. My characters tend to be a passionate lot. Fortunately for me, so were the Victorians as their many euphemisms for swear words attests. George, ginger, Godfrey, golly, gosh, gracious and gravy it are just a few of the ways annoyance or anger was expressed in polite society.
There was also gee willikens and gee wiz and of course doggone. Surprisingly the term blankety blank has been around since the 1880s.
As for when to call a spade a shovel, we can all relax. Both words have been around since 900 A.D.
Thinking back to my childhood I realize some terms I grew up with no longer exist. A couch in our house was called a davenport back then–don’t ask me why. My husband still insists upon calling the ‘fridge an icebox. What about you? Any words or phrases in your past that are no longer relevant?
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
Kick up a row: create a disturbance
Persuader: a gun
Pie eater: a country boy, a rustic
Sold His Saddle: disgraced
The tradition of the New Year’s Resolution goes all the way back to 153 B.C. when Janus, a mythical king of early Rome, was placed at the head of the 365-day solar calendar. With his two faces –one on the front of his head and one on the back, he could look back at the past and forward into the future at the same time. He became the symbol for forgiveness of past wrongs as well as a call for tomorrow’s better behavior.
As for me, I start with the same ole’ resolutions every year. Eat less, pray more. Trust God even when it’s hard, smile even when my face hurts, grit my teeth when I want to scream. Write ten thousand words a day…dust off the exerbike, and this year, a new one for 2012: Don’t let my recently broken big toe impede my christening of my Christmas gift Wii Zumba.
(When all’s said and done, though, by Chocolate Bunny Time, I’ve usually failed miserably at each and every one.)
But that didn’t stop me from being inspired. I scoped around for a few revolves from famous folks I admire:
Ben Franklin: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Mark Twain: New Year’s Day–now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.
Abraham Lincoln: Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.
Then I thought, what might our beloved cowboy resolve? Not to squat with his spurs on? Not to spit into the wind? Always treat ladies and horses as right as he can?
In my search, I came across the Cowboy Poetry at the Bar-D Ranch site and received permission from Mr. Don Gregory to use the adorable poem below. I suppose adorable isn’t quite the adjective for a cowpoke, but it truly works. (The pic isn’t Mr. Gregory. I just liked it and thought it fit the occasion.)
Enjoy it as this New Year scrambles off to a good start, and don’t forget to leave your own resolutions in the comment page!
Here I sits, in the bunkhouse,
Outside, the snow is stirrup deep.
Thinkin’ on the comin’ year, And resolutions, I might can keep.
Well, the way my britches fit, I might lose twenty pounds. I tried that one year, and gained ’bout ten, How’d THAT git turned around.
Mayhaps I’ll try an easier life, Than pushin’ contrary hides. Move to town, and git a job, Like saddlin’ liv’ry snides.
I recall the year I tried that, Got me a job, at the dry goods store. I drug that job, and come back here, ‘Bout January twenty-four.
I gave up drinkin’, in ’82, Said there’d be no more headaches. That lasted till St. Paddy’s day, Guess we all make those mistakes.
Gave up cussin’, one New Years, Didn’t last, it’s safe to say. Smacked my thumb, with fencin pliers, The air turned blue, that day.
Of all the resolutions, I’ve made in years gone by. I can’t think of one I’ve kept On this you can rely.
So this year I got a good one, Yup, this grizzled old galoot. Is gonna resolve hisself, Not to be so resolute.
One of my favorite things about the cowboy mystique is the way they express themselves. That colorful cowboy lingo is second to none when it comes to finding just the right way to describe a situation or person. Those western metaphors draw me into the old west faster than a gunman can clear leather. My mind immediately conjures images of trail-weary cowpokes jawin’ around a campfire or a bunch of ranch hands mumbling their opinions from atop a corral rail.
Ramon Adams wrangled up a fun selection in his book, Cowboy Lingo. Here are some of my favorites:
To express something as being hard to miss –
“plain as the ears on a mule” or “as conspicuous as a new saloon in a church district”
Someone or something not well liked –
“as popular as a wet dog at a parlor social”
A brave man –
“had plenty of sand in his craw” or “gravel in his gizzard”
When asked to do something on foot instead of on horseback –
The cowboy would reply that he was “too proud to cut hay and not wild enough to eat it.”
In hot, dry weather –
“you had to prime yourself to spit” or the weather “sweated him down like a tallow candle”
Trying to accomplish the impossible was like –
“tryin’ to scratch yo’ ear with yo’ elbow” or “trimmin’ the whiskers off the man in the moon”
Something useless –
“as useless as a twenty-two cartridge in an eight-gauge shotgun”
To describe a worthless person –
“his family tree was a scrub” or “he ain’t fit to shoot at when you want to unload your gun”
An ignorant person –
“don’t know as much as a hog does a side-saddle”; “his thinker’s puny”; “he don’t have nuthin’ under his hat but hair”; or “his brain cavity wouldn’t make a drinkin’ cup for a canary bird”
When something is pretty –
It’s “pretty as a painted wagon” or “pretty as a young calf’s ear”
When something is ugly –
It’s “so ugly the flies wouldn’t light on him”
A thin person –
“he’s built like a snake on stilts” or “he’s so narrow he could take a bath in a shotgun barrel”
An inhospitable person –
“sociable as an ulcerated tooth” or “as polite as a hound to a stray pup after his bone”
An unhappy person –
“his luck was runnin’ kinda muddy” or “someone had swiped the silver linin’ off his cloud”
If a cowboy failed to comprehend your meaning, he might ask you to –
“chew it finer” or “cut the deck a little deeper” or “cinch up a little, your saddle’s slipping” because “it’s too boggy a crossin’ for me”
If he needed you to repeat something –
“Would you mind ridin’ over that trail again?”
If you talked too much, he might advise you to –
“save part of your breath for breathing” or “keep a plug in your talk box” or “put your jaw in a sling, your liable to step on it”
So what about you? What are some of your favorite cowboyisms?
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.
There is a fun little reference book out there called An Exaltation of Larks. I’ve had a copy of it on my writer’s resource shelf for several years and pull it down every once and a while to thumb through it. The book lists the names of collective groupings of a particular animal or object, or in other words, “nouns of multitude”. It includes such commonplace terms as
A pod of whales
A herd of cattle
A pride of lions
A plague of locusts
A litter of kittens.
But it also includes wonderful, little known terms such as
A leap of leopards
A skulk of foxes
A knot of toads
A parliament of owls
The author, James Lipton, professed to have great fun coining new terms for some of these groupings himself and encouraged his readers to join in the fun too. He advises ‘players’ to keep the following in mind:
A simple play on words usually detracts from rather than adds to the energy of a term
Alliteration is not necessary and can even seem stilted or forced
The success of the expression works best wihen it hones in on the quintessential essence of the group, allowing it to represent the whole – for instance a blur of impressionists or a blessing of nuns
So I decided to play along, with a somewhat western focus, and this is what I came up with:
A feist of cowgirls
A stoic of cowboys
A quell of schoolmarms
A sashay of saloon girls
A quiver of dragonflies
A clump of boots
A startle of minnows
A posy of debutants
A pretend of jackalopes
A giggle of schoolgirls
A slingshot of schoolboys
A squirm of babies
A twinkle of fireflies
A battery of bullies
A priss of spinsters
A glib of peddlers
A menace of bulls
So, how did I do? And do you have some ideas of your own to add to the list?