People had a different way of saying things a hundred years ago. Particularly in the Old West. An Easterner arriving in an Old West town had to learn a whole new language. One could sit in a local saloon for hours, and never understand a word that was said.
There were no published books on the subject, making it difficult to acquire the slang. Gestures and tone of voice would explain some of the terms, but most were pretty hard to decipher. Some terms were pronounced the same, but meant an entirely different thing. If a local mentioned a “bee”, you would envision a small insect that stings and makes honey. What they mean is a gathering of locals. A “Bad Egg” isn’t an egg gone bad, it’s a person gone bad.
The only remaining option to get a grasp of it was to congregate with the locals intensely, paying mind to what they said, and questioning most of their explatives. This education was acquired at the price of numerous drinks for the locals to keep their interest in your endless questions, and, of course, the results of your own inebriation.
It’s a subject not covered much, if any, in the history books. No one mentions the difficulty in crossing this language barrier for those far outside the Western locale. No one probably thought it was important. If you could make the treacherous journey to the West, and survive it, surely this was a miniscule problem to overcome.
Below is a list of the better known Old West terms. An interesting read:
Above Snakes – If you were “above snakes,” you were above ground – meaning still alive.
Ace-high – Depending upon the context, this might mean “first class and respected”, or it could mean a winning poker hand.
According to Hoyle – Correct, by the book. “Hoyle” is a dictionary of rules for card playing games.
A Hog-killin’ Time – A real good time. “We went to the Rodeo Dance and had us a hog-killin’ time.”
A Lick and a Promise – To do a haphazard job. “She just gave it a lick and a promise.”
All Down But Nine – Missed the point, not understood. This referenced missing all nine pins in bowling. (Yes, there was bowling during Old West times.)
All to Pieces – Completely, absolutely
Arbuckle’s – Slang for coffee, taken from a popular brand of the time. “I need a cup of Arbuckle’s.”
At Sea – At a loss, not comprehending. “When it comes to understanding women, I’m at sea.”
Bach – To bachelor it. For men to keep house without a woman’s help. Pronounced, and sometimes spelled, “batch”.
Bad Egg – A bad person.
Balled up – Confused
Barkin’ at a knot – Doing something useless; wasting your time.
Bazoo – Mouth. “Shut your big bazoo.”
Anasazi – Navajo for “ancient ones,” this word describes an ancient tribe of the Southwest. Some Navajo say this meaning is a mistranslation for a word that means “ancient enemies.” Another interpretation is “ancient ancestors.”
Arikara (also Arikaree) – This term is believed to mean “horns,” after this tribe’s ancient custom of wearing hair ornaments that stuck upright and were made of bone.
Badlands – From a French term meaning “bad country for travel.” The term applied to barren areas of South Dakota, as well as other inhospitable western locations.
Bee – A gathering of friends, family and neighbors to get a specific job done Usually used with women’s quilting get togethers – a quilting bee.
Bee in your bonnet – An idea.
Bear Sign – A cowboy term for donuts made while they were on the range. A cook who could and would make them was highly regarded.
Beat the devil around the stump – To evade responsibility or a difficult task. “Quit beatin’ the devil around the stump and ask that girl to marry you.”
Beef – To kill. (This came from killing a cow for food.) “Doc Holiday beefed a man today.”
Bend an Elbow – Have a drink. “He’s been known to bend an elbow with the boys.”
Bender – Drunk. “He’s off on another bender.”
Benzinery – A low-grade drinking place. Cheap whiskey was sometimes called benzene.
Berdache – An Indian male who dressed and lived entirely as a woman, fulfilling a cultural role within the tribe. Sometimes called in Indian languages a “would be woman” and sometimes thought of as a third sex. Common among the tribes of the Americas, these men-women had social and religious powers. They might be givers of sacred names; first to strike the sun-dance pole; leaders of scalp dances; good luck to war parties; visionaries and predictors of the future; matchmakers; excellent artisans in beadwork, quillwork, hide-tanning and making clothing; creators and singers of songs. Understood as following a vision by most Indians, they were not tolerated by whites. They persist today, discreetly.
Best Bib and Tucker – Wearing your best clothes. “There’s a dance Saturday, so put on your best bib and tucker.”
Between Hay and Grass – Neither man nor boy, half-grown.
Biddy – Hen. Also used to refer to a nagging or complaining woman.
Big Bug – Important person, official, boss. “He’s one of the railroad big bugs.”
Biggest Toad in the Puddle – The most important person in a group.
Bilk – Cheat.
Bone Orchard – Cemetery.
Bosh – Nonsense. “It was absolute bosh what he said.”
Boss – The best, top. “The Alhambra Saloon sells the boss whiskey in town.”
Buckaroo – A cowboy from the desert country of Oregon, Nevada, California, or Idaho.
Buck up – Cheer up; chin up.
Bug Juice – Booze, firewater, whiskey.
Bullboat – A craft with a willow frame covered by buffalo hide.
Bulldoze – To bully, threaten, or coerce.
Bully – Exceptionally good, outstanding. (Used as an exclamation.) “Bully for you!”
Bullwhacker – A person who drives a team of oxen, usually walking beside them.
Bunko Artist – A con man.
Burg – A town, rather than the common camps and small settlements.
Bushwhack – A cowardly attack or ambush.
Buzzard Food – Dead.
By Hook or Crook – To do any way possible.
Calaboose – Jail.
California Widow – A woman separated from her husband, but not divorced. (From when pioneer men went West, leaving their wives to follow later.)
Catawampously – Also ‘catawamptiously’. Fiercely or eagerly.
Celestial – A term used in the West to refer to people of Chinese descent; the word derives from an old name for china, the “Celestial Empire.”
Chisel, chiseler – To cheat or swindle, a cheater.
Chuck – Food.
Clean his/your plow – To get or give a thorough whippin’.
Coffee Boiler – Shirker, lazy person. (Would rather sit around the coffee pot than help.)
Consumption – Slang for pulmonary tuberculosis.
Copper a Bet – Betting to loose, or being prepared against loss. “I’m just coppering my bets.”
Come a cropper – Come to ruin, fail, or fall heavily. “He had big plans to get rich, but it all became a cropper, when the railroad didn’t come through.”
Cooling yer heels – Staying for a while. “He’ll be cooling his heels in the pokey.”
Coot – An idiot; simpleton; a ninny.
Cold as a wagon tire – Dead.
Cotton to – To take a liking to.
Crazy as a loon – Very crazy.
Croaker – Pessimist, doomsayer. “Don’t be such an old croaker.”
Crowbait – Derogatory term for a poor-quality horse.
Curly Wolf – Real tough guy, dangerous man. “Ol’ Bill is a regular curly wolf, especially when he’s drinkin’ whiskey.”
Cuss Words – The swear words back then are pretty much the same as they are now, though they were not used as prevalently back then. Profanity was frowned upon by polite society and old west cowboys rarely would swear in front of a lady.
Cut a Swell – Present a fine figure. “He sure is cutting a swell with the ladies.”
Cutting Horse – A horse with the ability to cut cows out of a herd.
Daisy – Good; excellent.
Dicker – Barter, trade.
Die-up – The deaths of several cattle from exposure, disease, starvation, or other widespread catastrophe.
Directly – Soon. “She’ll be down, directly.”
Dinero – From the Spanish, a word for money.
Dogie – An orphaned calf; by extension, any cattle.
Dog Soldiers – Part of the warrior society of some plains Indian tribes.
Don’t care a Continental – Don’t give a damn.
Don’t get your dander up – Anxious; excited.
Douse-the-Lights – Lights out. Time to hit the hay.
Doxology Works – A church.
Driving the Nail – A sport consisting of attempts to drive a nail into a post with rifle or pistol fire.
Dry Gulch – To ambush someone, especially when the ambusher hides in a gully or gulch near a road and jumps the passersby.
Ducky – Used in early century as term of endearment.
Dude – An Easterner, or anyone in up-scale town clothes, rather than plain range-riding or work clothes.
Elephant – Short for ‘to see the elephant’; to go to town, or to see the world, usually for the first time.
Eucher, euchered – To out-smart someone, to be outwitted or suckered into something.
Exodusters – The Biblically inspired name taken by black emigrants who departed the post-Civil War South for the promised land of Kansas.
Fag – In cowboy talk, to get out fast.
Fandango – From the Spanish, a big party with lots of dancing and excitement.
Faro – A card game that took its name from faroon, a derivative of pharaon (pharoah.) The Pharoah was the king of hearts in a regular deck of cards. Players bet on the order in which cards would be drawn from a box.
Feller – Fellow. “That big feller over there is the sheriff.”
Fetch – Bring, give. “Fetch me that hammer.” “He fetched him a punch in the nose.”
Fight like Kilkenny cats – Fight like hell.
Fine as cream gravy – Very good, top notch.
Fish – A cowboy’s rain slicker, from a rain gear manufacturer whose trademark was a fish logo. “We told him it looked like rain, but left his fish in the wagon anyhow.”
Fish or Cut Bait – Do it or quit talking about it.
Fixin’ – Intending. “I’m fixin’ to get supper started.”
Flannel Mouth – An overly smooth or fancy talker, especially politicians or salesmen. “I swear that man is a flannel-mouthed liar.”
Four-flusher – A cheat, swindler, liar.
Free-Soilers – People opposed to the extension of slavery. The name came from the Free-Soil Party, which existed from 1848 to 1854.
Full as a tick – Very drunk.
Fuss – Disturbance. “They had a little fuss at the saloon.”
Galvanized Yankees – Former Confederate soldiers who served in the U.S. Army in the West following the Civil War, and during theIndian Wars.
Get a Wiggle On – Hurry.
Get it in the Neck – Get cheated, misled, bamboozled.
Get my/your back up – To get angry. “Don’t get your back up, he was only joking.”
Get the Mitten – To be rejected by a lover. “Looks like Blossom gave poor Buck the mitten.”
Gone up the flume – Yield, lost, dead.
Gospel Mill – A church.
Gospel Sharp – A preacher.
Got the Bulge – Have the advantage. “We’ll get the bulge on him, and take his gun away.”
Go through the Mill – Gain experience. (Often the hard way.)
Granger – A farmer.
Grassed – To be thrown from a horse.
Grass widow – A divorcee.
Gringo – A derogatory word for Anglos. One source claims it comes from a shortening of the title of a popular song during the Mexican War: “Green Grow the Lilacs.”
Grubstake – To provide the materials a prospector needs, including food and money, in return for a percentage of any claim that the prospector might find.
G.T.T. – Gone To Texas. A common expression in use following the Civil War. People would find the letters G.T.T. carved into their doors, left by a kin. Many outlaws went to Texas..
Half seas over – Drunk.
Hang Fire – Delay.
Hard case – Worthless person, bad man.
Heap – A lot, many, a great deal. “He went through a heap of trouble to get her that piano.”
Heeled – To be armed with a gun. “He wanted to fight me, but I told him I was not heeled.”
Hemp – Cowboy talk for rope; in verb form to hang someone. Hemp fever was a morbidly jocular term for a hanging. Hemp party (also string party) meant the same. A hemp committee was a group of vigilantes or a lynch mob (depending on your point of view) and a hemp necktie was the rope they did the deed with.
Hill of Beans – Slang for something of trifling value, as in “it ain’t worth a hill of beans.”
Hounds – Rowdies of the gold-rush days of San Francisco.
Here’s how! – A toast, such as Here’s to your health.
Hit pay dirt – Mining term. To find something of value.
Hobble your lip – Shut up.
Hold a candle to – Measure up, compare to.
Hold your horses- Stay calm. “Hold your horses, we’re on our way.”
Hoosegow – Jail, from the Spanish juzgado, meaning courthouse.
Horse feathers – Ridiculous.
Hot as a whorehouse on nickel night – Damned hot.
Hurricane Deck – The sadlle of a bucking horse.
In apple pie order – In top shape.
Iron Horse – A Railroad train.
Is that a bluff, or do you mean it for real play? – Are you serious?
Jawing – Talking. “We sat around the campfire just jawing.”
Jig is up – Scheme/game is over, exposed.
Keep that dry – Keep it secret.
Kick up a row – Create a disturbance.
Knocked into a cocked hat – Fouled up, rendered useless.
Knock galley west – Beat senseless.
Lands Sake! – Acceptable alternative term of profanity.
Light (or lighting) a shuck – To get the hell out of here in a hurry. “I’m lightin’ a shuck for California.”
Like a Thoroughbred – Like a gentleman.
Like lickin’ butter off a knife – Something that is easy; not hard.
Lily Liver – Someone who is a coward.
Loco – Crazy.
Llano Estacado – The dry, treeless plains of Texas and New Mexico.
Longrider – An outlaw, someone who usually had to stay in the saddle for an extended period of time while on the run from a crime.
Lunger – Slang for someone with tuberculosis.
Madder than an old wet hen – “Mama woke up madder than an old wet hen.”
Make hay while the sun shines – To make the most of the day, or an opportunity.
Make a Mash – Make a hit, impress someone. (Usually a female.) “Buck’s tryin’ to make a mash on that new girl.”
Man for breakfast – A murdered body in the streets at dawn. Commonplace in the early days of Los Angeles and Denver. Also used to describe certain saloons when men were killed the night before. “Lambert’s only had two men for breakfast.”
Mochilla – A rectangular leather saddlebag popularized by the Pony Express.
Muddy end of the stick – Short end of the stick.
Mudsill – Low-life, thoroughly disreputable person.
Muleskinner – A person who drives and usually rides in a wagon pulled by mules.
Mustard – To unsettle or disturb cattle.
Mutton-puncher – Derogatory name used by cowboys to describe a sheepherder.
Nailed to the counter – Proven a lie.
Nosey Parker – Someone who is nosey.
Namby-pamby – Sickly, sentimental, saccharin.
Odd stick – Eccentric person. “Ol’ Farmer Jones sure is an odd stick.”
Of the first water – First class. “He’s a gentleman of the first water.”
Offish – Distant, reserved, aloof.
Oh-be-joyful – Liquor, beer, intoxicating spirits. “Give me another snort of that oh-be-joyful.”
On the Dodge – Hiding out somewhere; laying low for a while.
On the Prod – Full of piss and vinegar and looking for trouble. Said of both people and critters.
On the Shoot – Looking for trouble. “Looks like he’s on the shoot, tonight.”
Pecker Pole – What a logger called a small tree or sapling.
Pecos – To kill by drowning. (Literally, to throw into the Pecos River.)
Parade chaps – A pair of chaps strictly for show. Might be worn for the grand entry parade at a rodeo.
Pimple – The cowboy’s name for the very small saddles used by Easterners.
Pirooting – Having sexual intercourse
Pining away for – Longing for.
Play to the gallery – To show off. “That’s just how he is, always has to play to the gallery.”
Played out – Exhausted.
Plumb – Entirely, completely. “He’s plumb crazy.”
Plunder – Personal belongings. “Pack your plunder, Joe, we’re headin’ for San Francisco.”
Poke – A small sack, usually made of leather or rawhide.
Pokey – Jail
Pony up – Hurry up! Or, Pay the bill.
Poppet – Term of endearment. “Come along, poppet.”
Pot Shot – An Easy shot.
Pray tell – Tell me.
Pull in your Horns – Back off, quit looking for trouble.
Pullin my donkey’s tail – A much older way of saying “are you pullin my leg”
Put a spoke in the wheel – To foul up or sabotage something.
Quirley – Roll-your-own cigarette.
Rattle Your Hocks – Hurry up, get a move on.
Reckon – To guess or think. “I reckon that’ll do right fine.”
Ride shank’s mare – To walk or be set afoot.
Right as a trivet – Right as rain, sound as a nut, stable.
Right as Rain – Fine. “After a good night’s rest, he’ll be right as rain.”
Rip – Reprobate. “He’s a mean ol’ rip.”
Roostered – Drunk. “Looks like those cowboys are in there gettin’ all roostered up.”
Saddle Bum – A drifter.
Saddle Stiff – A cowboy.
Saddle Tramp – A cowboy who spends most of his time in the chuck line.
Sand – Guts; courage; toughness. “You got sand, that’s fer shore.”
Scoop in – Trick, entice, inveigle. “He got scooped into a poker game and lost his shirt.”
See the elephant – Originally meant to see combat for the first time, later came to mean going to town, where all the action was.
Sharps – Any firearm manufacturered by Christian Sharps for his Sharps Rifle Company. This term also applied to professional gamblers who cheated at the Poker tables.
Shave tail – A green, inexperienced person.
Shindy – Uproar, confusion.
Shin Out – Run away.
Shoot, Luke, or give up the gun – Do it or quit talking about it.
Shove the queer – To pass counterfeit money.
Shut yer cock holster – Shut yer mouth.
Silk – Barbed wire.
Simon pure – The real thing, a genuine fact. “This is the Simon pure.”
Sin-buster – A preacher.
Skedaddle – Scurry away or run like hell (circa Civil War.) “I best skedaddle.”
Slower than molasses in January – Slow.
Someone to ride the river with – A person to be counted on; reliable; got it where it counts.
Soaked – Drunk.
Sound on the Goose – True, staunch, reliable.
Spell – Time; for a while.
Stand the gaff – Take punishment in good spirit. “He can really stand the gaff.”
Stew in one’s own juice – To suffer from one’s own action.
Strong enough to float a colt – Very strong coffee.
Sucking Hind Tit – Being last and getting the least.
Take on – Grieve. “Don’t take on so.”
Take French Leave – To desert, sneak off without permission.
Take the rag off – Surpass, beat all. “Well, if that don’t take the rag off the bush.”
Taos Lightening – A name given to any potent liquor.
Tenderloin – The red-light commerical district of a town, featuring brothels.
The Old States – Back East.
The whole kit and caboodle – The entire thing.
Three ways from Sunday – Moving quickly; high-tailing it out of there.
Throw up the sponge – Quit, give up, surrender.
Tie to – Rely on. “He’s a man you can tie to.”
Tiswin – A kind of weak beer brewed from corn, popular among the Apache.
To beat the Dutch – To beat the band. “It was rainin’ to beat the Dutch.”
To the manner born – A natural. “He’s a horseman to the manner born.”
Twig – Understand.
Two Whoops and a Holler – Not far away.
Up the spout – Gone to waste or ruin.
Unshucked – Cowboy talk for naked. An unshucked gun is one that’s out of the holster.
Waddy – One of the words for cowboy, especially a cowboy who drifted from ranch to ranch and helped out in busy times.
Wake up/Woke up the wrong passenger – To trouble or anger the wrong person.
Who-hit-John – Liquor, beer, intoxicating spirits. “He had a little too much who-hit-John.”
Wipe your chin – Be quiet.
Worse than a cat in a roomful of rockers – Someone who is really nervous.
Yack – A stupid person.
Yammerin’ – Quit talking. “Drink yer coffee an’ quit yer yammerin’.”
Yellow Belly – A Coward.
Yourn – A form of ‘yours’, as in “This un’s mine, that un’s yourn.”