The great & grand list of slang
In case you had ever wondered what some of them thar’ words used
in melodramas meant ... here is a compilation of old west slang from
the pages of period newspapers, books, memoirs and multitude of
resources. Some of the actual slang of old west style melodramas is
a bit different than what you would have heard in the actual old
west. Today we would not quite comprehend all that was spoken back
then and so in modern melodramas we make some "adjustments". Still
... this guide of authentic old west terminology is one that will
help ya-all understand the goin's on in your next melodrama. Or
perhaps help you in writing one of your own. Some terms might be
politically incorrect in our current world, but we left them in for
sake of historical accuracy. If any of the mtruly offend you ...
send us an email and we will probably delete the offending phrase
... not our intention to get your dander up.
Above snakes - Above ground. Said of a man who is still
Ace-high - First class, respected.
Hoyle - Correct or by the book.
Afeared - Being scared or
A hog-killin' time -
A real good time. "We went
to the New Year's Eve dance and had us a hog-killin' time."
lick and a promise - To do haphazardly. "She just gave it a lick and
All down but nine -
Missed the point, not
understood. (Reference to missing all nine pins at bowling.)
All horns and rattles - or mad as a peeled rattler - or mad enough
to swallow a horn-toad backwards.
This refers to someone who was
At sea - At a loss, not comprehending. "When it
comes to understanding women, boys, I am at sea."
Back down -
To yield or to retract.
Bad ad Mack -
Calling someone a
villain or a scoundrel. Referring to the legendary character of
Professor Mack in old west mythology.
Badlands - From a
French term meaning "bad country for travel." The term applied to
barren areas and other inhospitable western locations.
Balderdash - Nonsense or foolishness or empty babble.
at a knot - To do something utterly useless or wasting time.
Bazoo - Mouth. - "Shut your big fat bazoo."
Bear sign -
Cowpoke term for what would be modern donuts. 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."
Bedroll - The old west sleeping bag consisting of several
blankets rolled together that one could spread out near the
Bellyaching - The act of complaining. Used as in
“stop yer bellyaching!”
Bender - Drunk. "He's off on another
Between hay and grass -
Neither man nor boy,
Best bib and tucker - Your best clothes. "There's
a dance Saturday, so put on your best bib and tucker."
- A hen and also a term used to refer to a nagging or complaining
Big bug - An important person, official, boss. "He's
one of the railroad big bugs."
Bloomers - Frilled women's' trousers gathered about the ankles and
worn under skirts.
Blow - Boast, brag. "Don't listen to him,
that's just a lot of blow."
Blowhard - Braggart, bully.
Blow-up - A fit of anger. "He and the missus had a blow-up, but
it's over, now."
Bluff - To trick or deceive (obviously from
cards but used in the vernacular).
exaggeration of "bodily”. As in “It's a mercy that the cowardly
varmints hadn't used you up bodaciously.”
Boiled Shirt - A
freshly washed and starched shirt ... suitable for going to the
doxology works (church).
Bone orchard - A cemetery or
alternatively used as bone yard.
Nonsense - mostly
used as an interjection or blurted out.
Boss - The best, top.
"The Alhambra Saloon sells the boss whiskey in town."
Bulldoze - To bully, threaten, coerce.
Bully - Exceptionally
good or outstanding. (An exclamation.) "Bully for you!"
Bumpkin - A dullard or simple person … an oaf … usually of no means.
Bunkhouse - Where cowboys slept when on the ranch.
Buzzard Food - Dead … “pushing up the daisies”.
By Hook or
Crook - To do any way possible.
Cad - A villain, a viper, a
fiend, a muggings, or a contemptible scoundrel.
Calico - A nickname for women given to them by their
cowboy which came from the popular material of one with two or more
colors that many of the old west dresses were made. Modern
equivalent would be "Honey", "Sweetie pie", "Sugar" from foods.
California widow - A woman separated from her husband, but not
divorced. (From when pioneer men went West, leaving their wives to
Frolicking or partying ... just
having a grand old time.
Also used as
'catawamptiously'. Meaning fiercely or eagerly.
(short for chaparejos) Which were leather breeches that a the cowboy
wears over his jeans to protect his legs as he rode through brush or
Chip Wagon -
The wagon that hauled cattle
chips that were used as fuel where wood was scarce.
chiseler - To cheat or swindle, a cheater.
Chuck - Another
word for food ... consisted of frijoles, (dried beans), coffee
(coffin varnish if it was bad coffee), jerky (dried beef) son of a
bitch stew (made from calf brains, tongue, liver, kidneys and heart
mixed with vegetables which was a cowboy favorite, and sourdough
Chuck Wagon - This wagon earned its name from the
cowboy who referred to food as “chuck.”
Clean his plow - To
get or give a thorough whippin'.
Conniption Fit - Country
slang for hysterics or temper tantrum
Consumption - Slang
for pulmonary tuberculosis.
Copper a bet -
Betting to lose 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 come a cropper, when the railroad
didn't come through."
Cookie - The camp cook. Also called
bean master, belly cheater, dough wrangler or gut robber.
Cotton to - To take a liking to.
Couldn’t hit a bull’s but
with a handful of banjos - A person with bad aim.
A dome shaped undergarment, was used to widen skirts and was quite
Croaker - A pessimist, doomsayer. "Don't be such an
Crowbait - A derogatory term for a poor-quality
Cut a swell - To present a fine figure. "He sure is
cutting a swell with the ladies."
interjection of disgust. Also consider using words like drat, egad,
consarn, gol-durn, dad-burn, blazes, gadzooks, all-fired, dog-gone,
cuss, goldarned, by gosh, tarnation, jackass, son-of-a-gun, egad,
odsbodkins. Sure, the west was wild, but melodramas are to be
stereotypical family friendly renditions of Hero versus Villain
stories … not letter perfect literature … gol-durn it.
Derringer (parlor gun) - Gun was used by gamblers and dance hall
girls. It was a small one-shot pistol and easily concealed.
Dicker - Barter or trade.
Difficulty - A euphemism for
trouble, often the shootin' or otherwise violent kind. "He had to
leave Texas on account of a difficulty with a gambler."
Directly - Soon. - "She'll be down, directly."
Deadbeat - A
bum, a layabout or useless person.
Dinero - From the Spanish.
A word for money used in the Western States.
Dog Robber - Old
Civil War term for one pulled from the ranks to act as cook.
Don't get your dander up - Don’t get anxious or overly excited.
Don’t go wakin’ snakes - A reminder not to make waves or cause
Do tell - Phrase used to express fascination with a
Down on - Opposed to. -
"His wife is
really down on drinking and cigars."
Doxology works - A
Dragged out -
Fatigued, worn out.
quickern’ you could spit and holler howdy - A man that was quick on
Dreadful - Very. "Oh, her dress is dreadfully
Dry gulch - To ambush.
Dude - An Easterner,
or anyone in up-scale town clothes, rather than plain range-riding
or work clothes.
Dad-gum - A softer version of the
“gol-darn” swear word.
To out-smart someone or to be
outwitted or suckered into something. (from an old card game).
Egad - A villain’s interjection of disgust or surprise.
Fandango - From the Spanish. Meaning a big party with lots of
dancing and excitement.
A card game that took its name
from faroon, a derivative of pharaon (pharaoh). The Pharaoh 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.
Feeling “wrathy" -
Being quite angry.
Fetch - Bring, give. "Fetch me that
hammer." / "He fetched him a punch in the nose."
cream gravy - Very good, top notch, top drawer.
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."
Fit to be tied -
Fit as a
fiddle - Generally used to me “in very good health”.
Intending. "Stop your bellyaching … I'm fixin' to get supper
Flannel mouth - An overly smooth or fancy talker,
especially politicians or salesmen. "I swear that man is a
Foiled Again - A villain’s final interjection of disgust in losing
out or being arrested by the town sheriff. Actually referring to
being wounded or poked with a fencing foil or other swordfignting
imploement. Being bested by an opponent.
Fork over - Pay out.
Four-flusher - A cheat or swindler or iar. Someone claiming they
have a "flush" which requires 5 cards ... when they only have 4 in
Frump - A plain or almost ugly lady.
as a tick - Inebriated or at least drunk.
Fuss - A
disturbance. "They had a little fuss at the saloon."
To have courage, guts, gumption. "He's game as a wild boar." Willing
to do something daring.
Get a wiggle on -
Get it in the neck - Get cheated, misled, or bamboozled.
your back up - To get angry. "Don't get your back up, he was only
Get the mitten - To be rejected by a lover. "It
looks like Rainbow just gave that villain Basil Blackthorne the
Give in - To yield.
Gol-Darn - (or Gol-Dern)
- A softer version of the obvious swear words.
Goner - Lost
Gone up the flume -
Same as goner.
mill - A church.
Gospel sharp - A preacher.
bulge - To have the advantage. "We'll get the bulge on him, and take
his gun away."
Go through the mill -
To gain experience and
doing it the hard way.
Excellent or beautiful. "Oh,
the Christmas decorations look just grand!"
Granger - A
Grinn’ like a possum eatin’ a yellow jacket -
colorful phrase means to be happy or embarrassed.
widow - A divorcee. Not to be confused with the old west phrase of
“to get grassed” which meant to be thrown from a horse.
Gringo - A derogatory word for Anglos. It comes from a shortening of
the title of a popular song during the Mexican War: "Green Grow the
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.
Hang fire - Delay.
Phrase comes from a pistol that has a delay in firing a bullet well
after the trigger is pulled and hamer strikes the cartridge.
Hanker or Hankering - A strong wish, want or desire.
case - A worthless person, bad man.
Hard Knocks - Hard times
or ill use.
Heap - A lot, many, a great deal. "He went
through a heap of trouble to get her that piano."
- An old west toast, such as today’s “cheers” or “Here's to your
health you low down cur of a man”.
To be armed with
a gun. "He wanted to fight me, but I told him I was not heeled."
Used more in the big city or by “city slickers”.
- A toast, such as Here's to your health.
Highbrow or stuck up.
Hill of Beans -
Something of trifling
value, as in “it ain’t worth a hill of beans.”
Hounds - Rowdies of the gold-rush days of San
Hit pay dirt - Originated as a mining term meaning
to find something of value.
Hobble your lip -
Shut up or shut
Hold a candle to - To measure up or compare to.
From the old method to determine if an egg is fertile or not.
Hold your horses - Stay calm. "Hold your horses, we're on our
Honky-tonk - A cheap saloon or dance hall frequented by
the cowboy when in town.
Term for jail. From the
Spanish word “juzgado” meaning courthouse.
Horse feathers -
In apple pie order -
In top shape.
Horse - A railroad or train with engine.
Is that a bluff, or
do you mean it for real play? - Are you serious?
Jailbird - A
Jawing - Another word for talking. "We sat around
the campfire just jawing."
Jig is up -
Used when a villain’s
scheme or plan is over or exposed.
Jumpy as a toad -
Melodrama folk often used colorful phrases to exaggerate the current
situation for effect. “Dry as a bone” or “Rare as hen’s teeth” or
“Ugly as a bucket of mud” or “Fine as frog’s hair” or even “Purdy as
a new calico dress” or “He’d as soon burn us at the stake just to
light his cigar” or “He’s the Biggest Toad in the Puddle” or “Slower
than molasses in January” or “Worse off than a cat in a roomful of
rockers” or “Poor as Job's turkey” or “Smart as a steel trap” or “He
could whip his weight in angry cats” or “Easy ... like lickin'
butter off a knife”.
Jumpin Jehosaphats -
An interjection of
“You gots' to be plumb kiddin’.
Keep that dry -
secret (from referring to gunpowder or food stuffs)
Kick up a
row - To create a disturbance.
Lands Sake! - An acceptable
alternative term of profanity that was used mostly around ladies or
Lay eyes on him - A common phrase meaning to “see
Let slide/ let drive/ let fly - Go ahead, let go. "If
you think you want trouble, then let fly."
Light a shuck -
To get the “heck out of here” in a hurry. "I'm lightin' a shuck for
Like a thoroughbred -
Like a gentleman.
Like lickin' butter off a knife - Something that is easy or not hard
Long-Rider - 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.
Make a mash - Make a hit, impress someone. (Usually a female)
"Buck's tryin' to make a mash on that new girl."
Low-life, thoroughly disreputable person.
Man alive -
Exclamation expressing surprise, shock, etc.; alt., "sakes alive".
Nailed to the counter - Proven a lie.
Sickly, sentimental, saccharin.
No-account - Worthless. As in
“Just ignore that no-account man”.
Odd stick -
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.
On the shoot -
trouble. "Looks like he's on the shoot, tonight."
On the prod
- A man or critter that is “looking for trouble”.
Mean. Used as in “That ornary cuss of a red-haired, cross-eyed
Pay through the nose -
To over-pay or have to pay
Peacemaker or Colt .45 -
The most popular
pistol which was used for killing snakes, kill sick or injured
cattle or even villains at times.
Peter out -
Pig Sticker - Knife or bayonet.
Piled on the Agony - To
add insult to injury
Play to the gallery -
To show off.
"That's just how he is, always has to play to the gallery."
Played out - Exhausted.
Plunder - Personal belongings. "Pack
your plunder, Joe, we're headin' fer San Francisco."
(or plum) - Entirely or completely as in “you are plumb right”.
Picayune - A term used to signify something very small or
frivolous. Also a small newspaper.
Pony up -
Hurry up or “get
a move on”.
Powerful - Very. "He's a powerful rich man."
Prairie coal - Dried cow manure, used to build cook fires in
treeless areas. Transported in a "chip wagon".
Reckless or careless. "He was arrested for a promiscuous display of
Proud - Glad. "I'm proud to know you."
Pshaw or Shaw - An expression of contempt, incredulity or disbelief.
Pull in your horns - Back off or quit looking for trouble.
Put a spoke in the wheel - To foul up or sabotage something.
Reckon - To guess or think. "I reckon that'll do right fine."
Retiracy - Retirement. As in “If we didn't elect him, he'd go
Rich - Amusing, funny, or improbable. As used
in the example … "Oh, that's rich!"
rip-snortin' - An impressive person, event or thing.
Roostered - Drunk. "Looks like those cowboys are gettin' all
Sam Hill - A euphemism for the devil. “What in
the sam hill is that feller yellin’ fer?”
Sawbones - A
surgeon or doctor or someone the town delegates that duty.
Scatter gun - An old west name for a shotgun ... actually a quite
Scoop in -
To trick, entice, inveigle.
"He got scooped into a poker game and lost his shirt."
Scuttlebutt - Another word for rumors.
school-marm - A woman teacher.
Seed - Commonly used for ‘saw
or ‘seen’. As in ... They seed us comin’.
Seven by nine - A
oft used phrase for something or someone of inferior or common
quality … originating from common window panes of that size.
Shakin’ a hoof - A phrase that means to dance.
- A single shot rifle used to hunt big game. It was later replaced
by the Henry and the Winchester repeater weapons of the 1860’s, but
the phrase hung in for a while as a generic description of a "big
Shave tail - A green, inexperienced person.
out - To run away. (See Vamoose.)
Shindy - An uproar or
Shut pan - Shut up or be quiet.
Yet another word for “drunk”.
Shecoonery - A mispronounced
corruption of chicanery.
Shoddy - Of poor quality.
Shoot, Luke, or give up the gun - Do it or quit talking about it.
Shooting iron and six-shooter - Slang expressions for a gun.
Shoot one's mouth off - To talk nonsense. "He was shootin' his
Shucks - A general mild surprise word almost
embarrassed in nature. Also used means worthless people or things
(corn or pea shucks). “He ain't wuth shucks”.
Skedaddle - To
run like heck or to flee. (See vamoose).
Skeery or skeerd -
To be afraid or cautious.
A term used to conclude a
deal to make good on a debt.
The term for someone
who settles on land without legal title, a widespread practice in
the Old West.
Soaked - Yet another word that means “to be
Soft solder - Flattery. "All that soft solder won't
get you anywhere."
Someone to ride the river with -
to be counted on; reliable; got it where it counts.
the goose - True, staunch, reliable.
Sow belly - Salt pork
taken on the trail for provisions.
Stand the gaff -
punishment in good spirit. "He can really stand the gaff."
Stetson - A favorite cowboy hat brand name, used interchangeably
Stumped - Confused.
Superintend - Oversee,
supervise. "He just likes to superintend everything."
- The job of being a cook's helper or dishwasher on the trails.
Tack - One of the many horse terms that were used for other
meanings. Tack meant a horse's riding equipment, including saddle
and bridle ... but could be used to define a cowboy's gear also.
Here’s some other ridin' terminology that you’ll want to be familiar
with in the old west. Bridle - horse’s headgear during riding. Bit -
the horse’s mouthpiece. Gaits - the speeds the horse travels,
including walk, trot and canter. Halter - the equipment worn on
horse’s head for leading or tying.
Thar’ - A repetitive word
of pointing out something as in … "them thar’ hills."
- Grieve. "Don't take on so."
Tarantula juice, red-eye or
anti-fogmatic - Other words for Whiskey.
Tenderfoot - A
novice cowboy or “city slicker” that ends up on the trail.
The Old States - Another way to say … back East.
kit and caboodle - The entire thing.
The Law - An
alternative to “The Sheriff”.
Throw a "Sockdologer" - A very
Throw up the sponge - To quit, give up or
surrender. Comes from fights where a sponge is thrown up to all the
fight to an end. The modern version of the saying is to "throw in
the towel" which comes from the same sport and the same intention.
Tie to - Rely on. "He's a man you can tie to."
Tote - To
Two Whoops and a Holler -
A way of saying “Not far
Tuckered out - A way to say exhausted. As in “She was
plumb tuckered out”.
Cowboy talk for naked. An
unshucked gun is out of it’s holster.
Up the spout - Gone to
waste or to say something is ruined.
Uppity - Another word
Varment or Varmint -
A wild animal or
To disappear or leave quickly
or simply to leave.
Wake snakes -
To raise a ruckus. ”He was
so laud he’d wake snakes”.
Wind up -
To settle or finish
something. "Let's wind up this business and go home."
Whitewash - To gloss over or hide one's faults or shortcomings.
Yammerin' - Quit talking. "Drink yer coffee an' quit yer
Yellow Belly - A Coward.
Yourn’ - A form
of 'yours', as in "This un's mine, that un's yourn."
(Let’s finish with an easy one.) Slang for agreement … yes.