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Old West Cowboy Speak

Talk Like a Cowboy in One Easy Lesson…

You got the boots. You got the hat. You’re working on that smooth swagger. Time to talk the talk—Old West style! Have fun with this small sampling of folksy and gritty Wild West cowboy phrases. Don’t just sit there barkin’ at a knot (wasting time); get a wiggle on (hurry up) and start reading now!

 

A  B  C   E  F   K   N   Q   T  U   W   Y  Z


A

Sheriff Wilson stomped into the jail all horns and rattles when he heard tell the bank robber was among the willows, in another county, above his reach.

Above my bend – Beyond my power, out of reach

Addle-pot – A spoilsport, a killjoy, a real wet blanket, a downer. You get the picture.

A lick and a promise – To do a shoddy, careless job

All hands and the cook – You’d holler this when you need every man and woman available to deal with a situation. Similar to “All hands on deck.”

All horns and rattles – A temper tantrum, a hissy fit

Among the willows – Escaping or dodging the law

 


B

Martha broke out the baldface dishes for Mr. Mortimer, a fancy gentleman and potential suiter who appeared rag proper, but was quite the blatherskite, yammerin’ his ballyhoo out the bazoo.

Baldface dishes – Got guests coming for supper? Break out the good china.

Ballyhoo – A sales pitch or gross exaggeration

Bazoo – One’s mouth

Belly wash – Weak coffee…definitely not espresso!

Blatherskite – An annoying person who talks non-stop. You might want to tell them to “Hobble your lip!”

Bone orchard – May they rest in peace. This is a cemetery.

Buffaloed – Confused, baffled, deceived. Though the image of buffalo is one of power and strength, it’s possible that observing captured buffalo reacting in a confused fashion gave birth to this interpretation, hence the word, “buffaloed.”

Bull nurse – One of many words describing a cowboy

Bunko artist – A con man, a phrase still in use today

Burn the breeze – Ride flat out, at full speed

 


C

Leonard was all done up in his finest choke strap, ready to cut a rusty with his catalog woman, but he didn’t make the impression he intended, as his horse shied, and Leonard promptly chewed gravel!

Catalog woman – Before there was online dating…A mail-order bride

Cattle Kate – The name given to describe a female cattle rustler, based on a real person, and a controversial accusation. In 1889, Ella Watson was suspected of cattle rustling. On July 20, a vigilante mob abducted her and her husband and lynched them for the alleged crime. Ella became the only woman ever hanged in Wyoming. The phrase “Cattle Kate” stuck, because a reporter incorrectly identified Ella as Kate Maxwell, a local prostitute, calling her Cattle Kate.

Chew gravel – Get tossed off a horse. Nothing more humiliating or ouchy than an involuntary dismount!

Choke strap – Not a wardrobe item associated with cowboys riding the range! So, when a ranch hand had to wear a necktie, he probably felt like he was being strangled!

Clean his plow – Get beat up in a fight

Corral dust – Lies, tall tales

Cut a rusty – Ah, love…to go a courtin’

 

D

Jimmy didn’t have a tail feather left, but he didn’t care a continental. He had his dream sack and the wide open plains.

Didn’t have a tail feather left – Flat broke, bankrupt

Don’t care a continental – Alternate: Don’t give a continental. To be disinterested, to not give a darn.

Down to the blanketAlmost broke, but soon won’t have a tail feather left!

Dragging her rope – When a woman is out to snag herself a husband

Dream sack – A cowboy’s sleeping bag

Dull music – Tedious, boring

 


E

When Horace came home jingled and saw Esther by the ears, he took cover because he knew the eatin’ irons were about to zit by his head.

Ears – When one is “by the ears,” they’re in a fight or are arguing.

Eatin’ irons – Tableware, cutlery, knives, forks, spoons, etc.

Equalizer – A gun, a pistol

Eventuate – Something that comes to an end, to close, terminate

 


F

Wade led the wide-eyed, fan tail out of the barn, saying the gelding was bomb proof, hoping to funkify the flannelmouth, mail-order cowboy into going back east.

Fan tail – A wild or rogue horse

Fat in the fire – When all your plans go awry!

Fill a blanket – To hand-roll a cigarette

Flannelmouth – Someone who has a lot to say, a talkative person

Flea trap – A bedroll

Fob off – To trick someone

Funkify – To scare or frighten

 


G

Stella may have been a grass widow dragging her rope, but she didn’t hesitate to give the mitten to Jacob, a most eligible, but quite jingled suitor, shouting, “Go boil your shirt!”

Get gaited – Get moving, hurry up

Get it in the neck – To be cheated or misled

Get shed of – To get rid of

Get/Give the mitten – To reject or be rejected by a suitor

Get the wrong pig by the tail – When you choose someone for any reason—to take up a cause, share a secret, do a job—and it turns out it was a huge mistake!

Go boil your shirt – Get lost! Go take a hike! Get out of here!

Go heeled – When you go out carrying a six-shooter, packing iron.

Grass widow – A divorced woman

 


H

Nora searched the entire house, and was about to hang up her fiddle when little Bobbi-Jo ran into the kitchen, hair case in hand. “I haint seen it nowhere, then I had a hankerin’ for an apple, and there it was in the orchard!”

Haint – A contraction of “have not”

Hair case – What you put on your head! A hat

Hair in the butter – Shall we say, a rather delicate situation that must be handled with great tact and sensitivity

Hammer and tongs – Acting out in a boisterous, angry manner

Hang fire – To delay, postpone

Hang up one’s fiddle – To give up

Hang onto one’s fiddle – To carry on

Hanker or hankering – A longing, a desire or a want

Happifying – Bringing joy and happiness

Hobble your lip – Shut up

 


I

Drifter Jack was in for it now, in liquor, shootin’ off his iron in the middle of town. He was trying to mount his old paint Indian side when the sheriff nabbed him.

Illy – Sick

Indian side – The right side of a horse. Indians mounted from the right side, while settlers, cowboys, traditionally, mounted from the left.

In for it – When you’re so deeply involved in a situation, there’s no going back

In liquor – Plastered! Intoxicated, drunk

Iron – Depending on the context, it could mean a branding iron, or a six-gun.

 


J

Lucy stood cooking supper, jawing away about the jollification at the church on the day her eldest daughter, Millie finally jumped the broom.

To jaw – To reprimand, or scold in an abusive manner

Jawing – Shooting the breeze, talking

Jingled – Drunk

Jollification – Great festivity!

Joy juice – Whiskey

Jump the broom – To wed, get married

Juniper – A mean-spirited name for a greenhorn cowboy or an eastern cowboy wannabe.

 


K

Molly burst into the keeping-room, feeling quite kedge.

“Oh, promise me you’ll keep it dry! You’re never gonna believe who’s gonna jump the broom!” she shouted.

That’s when she saw Rev. Gunderson sitting in the chair across from her mother, and realized her wobblin’ jaw just might kick up a row.

Kedge – Feeling healthy and in great spirits

Keeping-room – A parlor, living or sitting room where the family and company gathers

Keep that dry – Shhhhhh…it’s a secret!

Keep the pot a boiling – Don’t stop; keep going

Kick – To complain, protest or raise an objection to something

Kick up a row – Cause trouble, a disturbance

Kitchen Safe – A cabinet or cupboard

 


L

Emma shivered, pulled the lammy tight around her shoulders, and took in the sun setting on the vast land. Should she keep it dry, or tell her husband, and make it right? That morning, while tidying William’s desk, she lit upon some papers. The error was so glaring now, but, after six years of wedded bliss, it seems they had, unknowingly leapt the book!

Lammy – A blanket

Landed – Wealthy, set for life

Lead plumb – A bullet

Leap the book – An illegal, mistaken or false marriage

Light on – Happen to discover

Lookin’ at the mule’s tail – Plowing

 


M

“Walter! Git yer muck forks in here and set the eatin’ irons on the table. Supper’s ready!” Lottie hollered.

Walter stood in the doorway watching her push the mysteries around the skillet, grease popping and sizzling. She wiped her brow, and hummed a tune. Some men would say he was a man-a-hangin’, but he knew he had made his jack. After all these years, through the good and the bad, he was still hopelessly mashed.

Made his jack – Achieved his goal, got what he was aiming for

Mail-order cowboy – Unlike a mail-order bride, a mail-order cowboy was hardly welcome in the Old West. In fact, the term was quite rude, and often used to bully newcomers. Western cowboys would badger eastern tenderfoots who arrived out west, wearing clothes that looked more like cowboy costumes, than work clothes.

Makins – Everything one needed to roll cigarettes: tobacco and papers.

Man-a-hanging – Poor guy! This is a man going through some hard times.

Man at the pot – A sacred rule of chuck wagon etiquette! If a cowboy goes to refill his cup from the campfire coffee pot, and another cowboy yells, “Man at the pot,” the cowboy at the coffee pot is obliged to refill or top off every man’s cup.

To learn more about the chuck wagon, and the curmudgeon ranch hands called “cookie,” check out The Chuck Wagon: America’s First Food Truck

Mashed – Yes, the birds are chirping and music is playing…because when you’re mashed, you’re in love!

Mouthpiece – A lawyer. ‘nuff said!

Muck Forks – A crude way of saying hands or fingers.

Mysteries – You might know the term “mystery meat.” In the Old West, “mysteries” were sausages for the same reason—no one (perhaps, except the butcher) knew exactly what was in them.

 


N

“Greta is just a nose parker!” Louisa said, as she bounced a nipper in her arms, and another tugged at her dress, “She got nailed to the counter, accusing that nester of being a nibbler. Look at him, as nobbish as he is; he’d do nothin’ of the sort.”

Nailed to the Counter – Proof that a rumor, accusation, or what someone said or did is false

Nobby or Nobbish – Fashionable, stylish

Nose Parker – Someone who sticks their nose in everyone’s business

Nester – A squatter. A person who takes up residence on government land to farm.

Nibbler – A common thief, a petty thief

Nipper – Awwww! A wee one! A baby or young child

 


O

Most folks around this one horse town know to avoid Wilbur. He’s an odd fish, on the dodge, always yelling that Old Scratch is after him. Yeah, best to steer clear of Wilbur, lest you become over head and ears with his yammerin’ corral dust.

Odd fish or odd stick – An eccentric person or someone who’s just plain strange, in their manners or way of thinking. An odd bird, as it were

Off one’s feed – Not hungry, having no appetite

Old Scratch – A euphemism for the devil

One horse – Small or not up to par

On the dead – No charge, free

On the dodge – In hiding

Over head and ears – Too much to handle, overwhelmed

 


P

Mr. Albert Withers rode up on his old puddin’ foot chestnut mare, leanin’ left and right on the weathered pancake, singing at the top of his lungs, playing to the gallery! Some speculated he’d been paintin’ his nose over in Dodge.

Paintin’ his nose – Out getting plastered, drunk

Pancake – A rude name for an English saddle

Piece of pudding – Good luck, a change for the better

Plank, plank down, plank up, (pony up) – Paying cash

Play to the gallery – Showing off

Prairie tenors – Coyotes

Puddin’ foot – A clumsy, awkward horse

Pulling a kite – Making a face (silly, mean, sarcastic, etc.)

 


Q

“Yes, your papa is a bit of a queer fish,” Ella told little Carrie and Charlie, when they ran to tell her their pa locked himself in the quincy to smoke a quirley.

Queer fish – Like an odd stick or odd fish, a quirky, eccentric, odd individual

Quincy – Let’s hear it for indoor plumbing! A toilet inside a house—what a luxury in the Old West!

Quirley – A cigarette, usually one that is hand-rolled

 


R

A right ranny, Jesse is usually a rag proper gentleman, but come Saturday night, he sure can raise sand down at the saloon, hitting up a raft of red eye, getting roostered! By closing time, he looks like he’s been rode hard and put up wet!

Raft – A lot, a large amount or quantity

Rag proper – Dressed stylishly, dressed well

Raise sand – Raise a ruckus, start trouble

Randy – A wanton or lecherous person

Ranny – A highly regarded, expert cowhand

Red eye – Whiskey

Rode hard and put up wet – Looking quite rough, whether inherently ugly, or appearing ragged due to enduring difficult circumstances. The phrase refers to a horse that’s been ridden to exhaustion, is sweating, breathing hard, and is put up in the barn, hot and uncared for.

Roostered – Inebriated, drunk

Run against a pill – Getting shot, taking a bullet

 


S

Sadie set her cap for Elmer, though some called him a saphead and saddle tramp. Sure enough, Elmer was soft down on this tough sage hen! Not only could Sadie brew up a mean six-shooter coffee, but she could also string a whizzer as good as any bull nurse he knew. She was definitely someone to ride the river with. Yes, Elmer’s sparrow chasing days were over.

Saddle tramp – A cowboy who spends more time at the chuck wagon than working the herd

Sage hen – A woman

Saphead – A person who is not bright, stupid, a dolt

To saw – To prank, play a joke on

Schruncher – A person who eats as if he hasn’t seen food in days, shoves down food hungrily

See how the cat jumps – Discovers a someone’s secret or their ulterior motives, plans

Set her cap for him – To try to get a potential suitor’s attention, to have eyes for

Six-shooter coffee – Ah…can you smell that enticing aroma? Good, strong coffee

Soft down on – In love, enamored

Sold his saddle – When a cowboy disgraces himself

Someone to ride the river with – This is your person, the one you can always count on to have your back

Sparrow catching – When a man looks for a girl to court, or go out with

Spread oneself – When a person is full of himself and boasts

String a whizzer – Tell an exaggerated story, a tall tale

 


T

Everyone remembered Herman as a ten-cent man, the type you’d throw off on when he came around with his tinker’s news and taradiddles, talking a donkey’s hind leg off. No one missed him when he went three ways from Sunday. Five years passed, and the whole town was surprised when he returned, now the tall hog at the trough!

Table muscle – One’s potbelly

Taffy – Fawning, flattery, smooth talk

Talk a donkey’s hind leg off – Idle chatter, talking just to talk, yammering with no purpose

Tall hog at the trough – An outstanding leader, one with superior vision and groundbreaking ideas

Tan your hide – To spank, paddle, slap

Taps – Taps refer to feet. When you’re “on your taps,” you’re on your feet, ready to take off.

Taradiddles – Tales or yarns told by imaginative travelers, animated tall tales with many false elements

Tear squeezer – A story filled with sadness, gloom, sorrow, heartbreaking enough to make one cry

Ten-cent man – A small-minded, petty, inconsequential man

Three ways from Sunday – Flee, move fast, hightail it out from a place

Throw off on – Goof on, make fun of, joke about

Tinker’s news – Old news, news that people have already heard

‘Twa’n’t – Contraction for “It was not.”

Two whoops and a holler – A place that’s not far away

 


U

Best be wary of Jed, he may be ugly as a mud fence, and look to be like ain’t nothin’ in the upper story, but he’s up to trap!

Ugly as a mud fence – Description of a very, very ugly person

Unwound – When a horse bucks

Upper story – One’s brain, their head

Up the spout – Something, like a farm, town or ranch, that’s gone to ruin or waste

Up to trap – A person who is sharp, shrewd, aware

 


V

The old vaquero scanned the desert for varmints then polished off the valley tan and passed out on the velvet couch.

Valley tan – Mormon whiskey

Vaquero – A cowboy, cattle herder, used in the southwest U.S./central Texas. Also, the Spanish word for “cowboy,” derived from the Spanish word vaca, which means cow.

Varmint – Vermin

Velvet Couch – A cowboy’s bedroll

 


W

That waddie sure could wake snakes, the way he whales on, he’s liable to wabble the wattles off ya, leaving ya white-eyed and whomper-jawed!

Wabble – To yabber on, tongue wag, be quick to speak

Waddy or Waddie – Another word for “cowboy,” but usually a ranch hand who was a drifter, one who traveled from ranch to ranch, working as needed during the busy season.

Wake snakes – To raise Caine, raise a ruckus

Wake up/Woke up the wrong passenger – To get the wrong person angry or upset, as they might retaliate!

War bag or war sack – A cowboy’s travel bag in which they carried only the bare essentials

Wattles – One’s ears

Wearing the bustle wrong – Expecting, with child, pregnant

Whale away – To lecture, preach or blabber non-stop, passionately, fervently

White-eyed – Tuckered out, exhausted

Whomper-jawed – Crooked, sideways, uneven, messed up

Wobblin’ jaw – The image of a person’s jaw constantly wobbling when they gossip

 


X

Jasper planked down the fee, marked the paper with an “X,” staking his claim to the gold mine he hoped would make him rich.

X – Yes, the letter X, the signature of a man who couldn’t read nor write, witnessed by another, considered legally binding.

 


Y

“That bunko artist musta took me for some kinda yack, stealin’ my yellow hammer like that,” Old Ben said, and tossed back another red eye, “But I sure cleaned his plow!”

Yack – A person who is not intelligent

Yam – To eat

Yammerin’ – Blabbering, talking 

Yellow Belly – A coward

Yellow Hammer – A gold coin

 


Z

“I saw them bees zittin’, heared ‘em zoonin’, and I was on my taps, hightailin’ it outta there!” Tommy said, all puffed up, spreading himself. But by the look on Becky’s face, he realized, perhaps it wasn’t the story to tell when you’re trying to cut a rusty with a girl.

Zit– To zip, fly

Zoon – To hum, buzz, or bark