Slang is an informal term not found in an ordinary dictionary, coinages and words changed often times for factious figures of speech.
Jargon is a group of terms exclusive to certain kind of technical terminology. An example might be the technical terms that computer geeks use. Those terms may not be in an ordinary dictionary but every computer geek knows what they mean. Jargon might also be terms or the names that are applied to equipment used in a particular profession.
It is not always wrong to use slang and jargon interchangeably. Sometimes slang is used so much that it earns a definition/place within a set of technical terminology.
When writing about the Old West, cowboy speak adds atmosphere and realism to the story.
As writers we use descriptions to set a scene and build an atmosphere that will pull the reader into our characters’ reality. Dialogue or the way our characters speak serves as another form of description. The way someone talks says a lot about where he’s from, his profession, his education and social hierarchy.
So it’s important to incorporate appropriate dialogue in our Old West stories. The hero’s twang, his slang and jargon should shout, COWBOY!
One note of caution here: Never overdue dialect and slang or your characters come off too slapstick matinee. Also be careful dialects; too much is distracting. Use just enough to flavor the story. Also, never trust old west movies as a reference for slang and jargon of the 1800s. Sometimes movies use phrases and terms that either didn’t exist at the time or were not yet in common usage. Generally speaking, once a word came into use, it took ten years before it was accepted as “common” usage.
Cowboy Curses: Yes, cowboys did use the F word but in my research I’ve learned that most of their curses took the form of religious blasphemy (hell, dam etc) rather than that of a sexual nature like the F word. Cowboys often competed in cursing contests around campfires but their curses were more outrageous and funny than they were dirty.
Examples: My own Aunt Mary! My dead Sister’s doll! Little Willy’s goat! Well, I’ll be a . . . (something funny)
I’ve compiled a long slang/jargon list with terms from many sources who borrowed from many other sources so there’s no real way for me to give credit where it’s due. However, I have listed some reference links below and I’m certain most of the phrases and terms can be found in them.
To save my sanity and yours, I’ve corralled mostly slang terms for this list. A (J) after the word means it crosses over into jargon. Most terms and phrases are defined; the rest are obvious. Forgive the curse words, I’m just relating the info.
A hog-killin’ time – a real good time
Ace-high – first class, respected
An invite to a dance – could mean shooting at a man’s feet to make him dance
As different as whiskey and tea
Bad plum – bullet
Bellerin’ like a . . . – yelling, howling, complain loudly
Bellyaching- complaining (still used today)
Belly-up – dead, died; also belly up to the bar (stand up at the bar and drink)
Biddy – hen but often used to refer to a nagging or irritating female
Big bug – the boss, an important person
Blue whistler – a bullet
Bobtail her and fill her with meat – Cut the small talk and get to the point
Bold face – whiskey or alcohol
Boot-licker- brown noser
By jingo, you’re right
Cached up – hiding
Cain’t shoot center – can’t shoot straight
Calico – a female, a type of print material used in the west for women’s everyday dresses
Caterwauling – usually terrible singing, or complaining
Chawed – chewed
Clean his/your plow – to get or give a thorough wippin’
Clipped his horns – took him down a notch or two; referring to a fight or a braggert
Con sarn it – soft replacement for g ** damn it, might be considered dialect
Cookie – camp cook (J)
Coons age – long time
Corncracker – derogatory for farmer
Cotton to- take a liking to
Crowbait –derogatory term for a poor-quality horse
Cultus – despicable, worthless, stupid
Dad-blame it – G** damn it
Dang! – Damn
Dicker – barter, trade
Dipping – chewing snuff
Dug for his cannon – reached for his gun
Fandango – from Spanish, used for a big party with lots of dancing
Fit to be tied – angry
Fixen – intending
Fly at it – cook says this when his food is ready (have seen it used to mean fight!)
Full as a tick – drunk or over eating
Get a wiggle on – hurry
Go to blazes – go to hell
Gol-Darn – softer version of obvious blasphemy
Goner – lost, dead
Gray backs – lice (J)
Hang fire – delay, lets hang fire before we make up our minds
Hang it all – who cares
Hanker or hankering – strong wish or want
Haulloa stranger – yelled when approaching a strange camp to avoid getting shot
Hazing a tenderfoot – giving a city man a hard time
Heeled – armed with a gun (used more by city slickers)
Hellbenders – drunken sprees
Hell fire – exclamation of irritation, a curse
Hesh up – hush up
Highflautin’ – fancy, stuck up, snooty
Hill of beans – of trifling value, ain’t worth a hill of beans
His look would pucker a hog’s butt
Horse feathers – exclamation meaning ridiculous or lack of belief
I can set with that – I can agree with that, I can handle that
I reckon – I suppose, I believe
Ifin’ – if
Infernal – awful (meaning from hell) Infernal weather, infernal man
Jamboree – any kind of party or celebration
Jawin’ me ta death – talking too much
Lambasted – to hit or slug
Lead plum – bullet
Leaky mouths – talks too much, gossip
Lickspittle – insult, a very low person, dishonest, no good
Light a shuck – to get the heck out of here, lets light a shuck
Light and set a while – climb off horse and stay a while
Loco son-of-a-bitch - crazy
Lowdown, dirty sneaking polecats
Mean as catmeat
Meat and tata
Montana feathers – hay used to stuff mattresses on early ranches
Montgomery Ward Woman – a very ugly woman
Moppin’ his plate – licking it clean, eating everything
Nary – never
One horse town
Ornery as a mama bear with a sore teat
Packing – armed
Planted him ‘neath the daisies
Plumb – meaning completely or totally. ( plumb tuckered out, plumb loco)
Prairie coal – dried cow manure, used to build fires (J)
Pretty as a little red heifer
Pshaw, ‘taint no trouble ‘tall – heck it wasn’t any trouble
Purely purdy – purely pretty
Raise hob – raise hell as in going to town to raise hell
Randy - wanton
Red skins got his har – Indians scalped him; dialect
Rode slick – said of a top rider who eschews all devices to help keep him in saddle
Sad as a tick-fevered pup
Sam hill – what the Sam hill? or what the devil?
Scalawags – thieves, con men, bad men
She stock – generic for female cattle regardless of age (J)
She’s aimin’ to hogtie and brand him – she aims to marry him
Shooting iron, six shooter – gun, pistol
Shuck – remove guns but could mean to remove clothes
Skeerd – scared; dilect
Skin yourselves – remove your guns
Slick heels – without spurs (J)
Sorta nice, ain’t it?
Soured my milk – made me irritated
Sowbelly – bacon (J)
Stretched hemp – someone who has been hung with a rope
That don’t/won’t wash – sounds wrong, makes no sense
That shines! – swell, really great
Thunderation – non-profane curse
Time to cut and run – cut your losses and get the hell out
Tromp his britches – beat him up
Unreliable as woman’s watch – because women are always late
Useless as a bull with tits
Vamose or Vamoose – go, leave, disappear
Varmint or Varment – wild animal or a bad man
Viands – food, meals
Vittles – food
Wanna snort? – What a drink
Whoo-up whoo-up – same as Haulloa stranger but from a greater distance
Whup – whip
Will die standin’ up – brave
Wobblin’ jaw – talks to much
Yaller – yellow, coward; dialect
Yarn the hours away – tell stories
Yellow belly – coward
Yonder – over there
Younder, a piece
You can slide, mister – you can go to hell
Yourn – yours
Yup – yes
Cowboy Slang and Jargon Books
Cowboy Slang by Edgar R. “Frosty” Potter: Potter’s books also have info on horses, brands, cattle etc. [one of my all time favorites]
Cowboys Talk Right Purty by Edgar “Frosty” Potter: Similar to Cowboy Slang, it has less slang but lots of invaluable info on rustling, horses, cattle, equipment
A Dictionary of The Old West by Peter Watts: You name it, this books defines it. Contains lots of terms/jargon and definitions of equipment etc.
Dictionary of the American West by Winfred Blevins: Similar to A Dictionary of The Old West yet different and valuable on it’s own.
Wonderous Times On The Frontier by Dee Brown: If you write Old West, this book is a must. This is more of a history of adventures of real people but Brown uses the language of the times. He demonstrates just how much the cowboy loved a good joke but also tells the serious stuff. Mine is highlighted all over the place! Worth every penny.
Cowboy Slang and Jargon On Line
Western Slang and Phrases – You’ll see a few of these on my list. Be careful to check the origin date of some of the terms. Some look like they originated at the turn of the century rather than the 1800s and some are general slang terms used by everyone, not just men of the west. Still, this a good resource.
Cool Western Slang : Some of these sights borrowed from each other but I noticed each has a few of their own too.
As Roy Rodgers always said -- Happy Trails.