slang & jargon

"speaking Melodramatic!"

The great & grand  list of slang and jargon

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 alive.

Ace-high - First class, respected.

According to Hoyle - Correct or by the book.

Afeared - Being scared or frightened.

A hog-killin' time - A real good time. "We went to the New Year's Eve dance and had us a hog-killin' time."

A lick and a promise - To do haphazardly. "She just gave it a lick and a promise."

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 very angry.

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.

Barkin’ 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 campfire.

Bellyaching - The act of complaining. Used as in “stop yer bellyaching!”

Bender - Drunk. "He's off on another bender."

Between hay and grass - Neither man nor boy, half-grown.

Best bib and tucker - Your best clothes. "There's a dance Saturday, so put on your best bib and tucker."

Biddy - A hen and also a term used to refer to a nagging or complaining woman.

Big bug - An important person, official, boss. "He's one of the railroad big bugs."

Bilk - To cheat.

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).

Bodaciously - An 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.

Bosh - 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.

Calaboose - jail.

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 follow later.)

Carryings-on - Frolicking or partying ... just having a grand old time.

Catawampously - Also used as 'catawamptiously'. Meaning fiercely or eagerly.

Chaps - (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 maneuvered cattle.

Chip Wagon - The wagon that hauled cattle chips that were used as fuel where wood was scarce.

Chisel or 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 bread.

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.

Crinoline - A dome shaped undergarment, was used to widen skirts and was quite detested

Croaker - A pessimist, doomsayer. "Don't be such an old croaker."

Crowbait - A derogatory term for a poor-quality horse.

Cut a swell - To present a fine figure. "He sure is cutting a swell with the ladies."

Curses - A villain’s 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 trouble.

Do tell - Phrase used to express fascination with a speaker's subject.

Down on - Opposed to. - "His wife is really down on drinking and cigars."

Doxology works - A church.

Dragged out - Fatigued, worn out.

Draw quickern’ you could spit and holler howdy - A man that was quick on the draw.

Dreadful - Very. "Oh, her dress is dreadfully pretty."

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.

Eucher - 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.

Faro - 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."

Fine as 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 - Angry.

Fit as a fiddle - Generally used to me “in very good health”.

Fixin' - Intending. "Stop your bellyaching … 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."

Flush - Prosperous, rich.

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 theri hand.

Frump - A plain or almost ugly lady.

Full as a tick - Inebriated or at least drunk.

Fuss - A disturbance. "They had a little fuss at the saloon."

Game - To have courage, guts, gumption. "He's game as a wild boar." Willing to do something daring.

Get a wiggle on - Hurry up!

Get it in the neck - Get cheated, misled, or bamboozled.

Get 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. "It looks like Rainbow just gave that villain Basil Blackthorne the mitten."

Give in - To yield.

Gol-Darn - (or Gol-Dern) - A softer version of the obvious swear words.

Goner - Lost or dead.

Gone up the flume - Same as goner.

Gospel mill - A church.

Gospel sharp - A preacher.

Got the 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.

Grand - Excellent or beautiful. "Oh, the Christmas decorations look just grand!"

Granger - A farmer.

Grinn’ like a possum eatin’ a yellow jacket - This colorful phrase means to be happy or embarrassed.

Grass 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 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.

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.

Hard 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."

Here's how! - An old west toast, such as today’s “cheers” or “Here's to your health you low down cur of a man”.

Heeled - 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”.

Here's how! - A toast, such as Here's to your health.

High-falutin - Highbrow or stuck up.

Hill of Beans - Something of trifling value, as in “it ain’t worth a hill of beans.”

Homespun - Homemade.

Hounds - Rowdies of the gold-rush days of San Francisco.

Hit pay dirt - Originated as a mining term meaning to find something of value.

Hobble your lip - Shut up or shut your mouth.

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 way."

Honky-tonk - A cheap saloon or dance hall frequented by the cowboy when in town.

Hoosegow - Term for jail. From the Spanish word “juzgado” meaning courthouse.

Horse feathers - Ridiculous.

In apple pie order - In top shape.

Iron Horse - A railroad or train with engine.

Is that a bluff, or do you mean it for real play? - Are you serious?

Jailbird - A criminal

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 - Keep it 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 children.

Lay eyes on him - A common phrase meaning to “see him”.

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 California."

Like a thoroughbred - Like a gentleman.

Like lickin' butter off a knife - Something that is easy or not hard to do.

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."

Mudsill - Low-life, thoroughly disreputable person.

Man alive - Exclamation expressing surprise, shock, etc.; alt., "sakes alive".

Nailed to the counter - Proven a lie.

Namby-pamby - Sickly, sentimental, saccharin.

No-account - Worthless. As in “Just ignore that no-account man”.

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.

On the shoot - Looking for trouble. "Looks like he's on the shoot, tonight."

On the prod - A man or critter that is “looking for trouble”.

Ornary - Mean. Used as in “That ornary cuss of a red-haired, cross-eyed bar-keep.”

Pay through the nose - To over-pay or have to pay the consequences.

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 - Dwindle away.

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."

Plumb (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".

Promiscuous - Reckless or careless. "He was arrested for a promiscuous display of fire arms."

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 into retiracy.”

Rich - Amusing, funny, or improbable. As used in the example … "Oh, that's rich!"

Rip-roaring, rip-staver, rip-snortin' - An impressive person, event or thing.

Roostered - Drunk. "Looks like those cowboys are gettin' all roostered up."

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 accurate description.

Scoop in - To trick, entice, inveigle. "He got scooped into a poker game and lost his shirt."

Scuttlebutt - Another word for rumors.

School-ma'am or 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.

Sharp’s rifle - 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 gun".

Shave tail - A green, inexperienced person.

Shin out - To run away. (See Vamoose.)

Shindy - An uproar or confusion.

Shut pan - Shut up or be quiet.

Soaked - 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 mouth off."

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.

Square - A term used to conclude a deal to make good on a debt.

Squatter - 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 drunk”.

Soft solder - Flattery. "All that soft solder won't get you anywhere."

Someone to ride the river with - A person to be counted on; reliable; got it where it counts.

Sound on the goose - True, staunch, reliable.

Sow belly - Salt pork taken on the trail for provisions.

Stand the gaff - Take punishment in good spirit. "He can really stand the gaff."

Stetson - A favorite cowboy hat brand name, used interchangeably with hat.

Stumped - Confused.

Superintend - Oversee, supervise. "He just likes to superintend everything."

Swamper - 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."

Take on - 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.

The whole kit and caboodle - The entire thing.

The Law - An alternative to “The Sheriff”.

Throw a "Sockdologer" - A very powerful punch.

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 carry.

Two Whoops and a Holler - A way of saying “Not far away”.

Tuckered out - A way to say exhausted. As in “She was plumb tuckered out”.

Unshucked - 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 for arrogant.

Varment or Varmint - A wild animal or objectionable person.

Vamoose - 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 yammerin'."

Yellow Belly - A Coward.

Yourn’ - A form of 'yours', as in "This un's mine, that un's yourn."

Yup - (Let’s finish with an easy one.) Slang for agreement … yes.

keeping it clean

I have been often asked about the use of profanity in the old west. By watching modern television shows like "Deadwood" or the HBO series about Wild Bill Hickock or modern "westerns" you'd think profanity were added to every conversation. The question is "Did the men of the "Old West" really talk like that?"

The answer ..."Sure ... maybe" ... Old West Americans did use colloquially foul language just a bit more freely than today. It was not uncommon for cow-pokes to have cursing contests, but the curses used were more of religious blasphemy rather than the profane insults which are more popular today. The consensus of historians is that yes ... this type of language and those words were used in the mid to late 19th century. Profanity was not used as frequently as movies would have you think.

Having said this ... you will no doubt notice that I have intentionally kept actual “cuss words” off of this list and this website ... not because the old west was a well-mannered place … to the contrary. But I believe that Melodramas can be a great family entertainment experience and you will get much bigger audiences for your productions if you keep them G or PG rated or at least keep the adult humor well "over the heads" of the children that attend.

Included in this fairly comprehensive (but not exhaustive) list of old west melodrama slang and phrases you will find several euphemisms such as consarn, gol-durn, heck or dad-gum which were used when in the presence of women folk or children. As melodramas are mostly for family style entertainment, I have taken the liberty to include common villainous “curse words” that can be used in mixed company. As telling someone to “go to blazes” does get the point across, but without the shock effect. And a villain yelling “curse you … curse you all to blazes” actually fits in quite well with his stereotype without making your audience storm out demanding the refund of their ticket price. I have also not included phrases that either were derogatory of a religion, race (usually American Indians/Native Americans or foreigners) or could be interpreted as such (Examples might be “Coon's age” which in the 1850’s had simply the meaning “a long time” or “mutton-puncher” which was a derogatory name used by cowboys to describe a sheepherder.) I have also left out a few words that have lost their original meaning (such as the word “Hooter” which in the old west had the meaning of “a bit or a tiny amount” or “fag” which meant to leave quickly or “hemp” which just meant rope, so “a hemp committee" was a group of vigilantes.) I have also left out the many words for the “houses of ill-repute” and their employees, because I want to help keep the New American Old West

Melodrama a great form of family entertainment that community groups, theatres, and playhouses can use. Not always G-Rated, but family friendly. In any case, what helps makes an old west melodrama is not realism, more it is the down-to-earth language of the old west and the colorful phrases that have become as obsolete as the chuck wagon, livery, or telegraph office.