Friday, June 1, 2012

The Language of the Mountain Man

By: Peggy L Henderson

I’m saving a post about specific mountain men and fur trappers, and their colorful stories for another time. Today, I simply want to introduce you to the language of the mountain man. Like the old west cowboys, the mountain men created their own unique language and terms. Today, if someone overheard a conversation by a couple of mountain men, it would most likely be completely incomprehensible. Not only because of the words used, but also because many of the activities and items back in the 1800’s no longer exist in our modern times. Fur traders came from all over. There were Frenchmen, English, Spaniards, and Europeans. Mix those up with several native Indian tribes, and a colorful new language soon developed that was a blended hybrid soup of all of the above.
Listed below are some of the words and phrases used by the mountain men during the fur trade era of 1810-1840.

"ABSAROKEE" also Absaroka. The Crow Indian word for their tribe meaning "children of the hawk" or "children of the crow."
"AH'LL SWAR BY HOOK" I'll swear to it.
"APPOLAS" sticks sharpend at both ends, stuck in the ground around a fire, on which are jabbed chunks of meat to roast slowly.
"ARWERDENTY" whiskey, from the Spanish words "agua ardiente", which means "fiery water".
"AUGE FIT" a fever, which comes and goes (not uncommon for men who spent a lot of time in waist deep water setting traps).
"BACCER or BACCY" tobacco.
"BALDFACE" alcohol.
"BANK BEAVER" beaver that makes a burrow on the bank of a fast moving river.
"BLACK YOUR FACE AGAINST (TO)" to go to war with, as in the Indian custom of blackening a face with paint before riding out on a raid.
"BOUDIN" delicacy of stuffed buffalo intestines. Also "boudie".
"BUFFLER" buffalo. The favorite food of the trapper and Indian alike.
"BUFFLER WOOD" buffalo chips, dried buffalo dung. Used for fuel in cooking fires.
"BUG'S BOYS or BEN JOHNSON'S BOYS" blackfoot warriors.
"BUSHWAY or BOOSHWAY" From the French word "bourgeois." A company man who supervised and indentured trappers who were forced to work for a fur trapping company. At the buckskinner's rendezvous these days a booshway is the person in charge of a rendezvous.
"BY A LONG CHALK" better or worse by a long shot.
"COLD DOIN'S" frigid weather.
"CONSARNED" expression of exclamation.
"COMPANY MAN" an employee of a fur trapping company, looked down upon by the free trappers.
"CORNCRACKERS" contemptible term used for farmers back East.
"DAB" castorium. The extract of the two perineal glands of the beaver. Used as a scent to attract beaver to a set trap. Strong and musky smelling, it is thick and yellow in color.
"DARE TO SET?" used in gambling or betting meaning "care to bet?"
"DIGGINS" home.
"DURST" dare, as in "Durst yeh?" ("Do you dare?")
"EUKER" an old time card game.
"FEEDBAG" eating a meal, also the stomach or abdominal area of the body.
"FEELING RIGHT PERT" feeling pretty good.
"FLATLANDER" Term of contempt for someone that was green or new to the mountains.
"FOOFURAH, FO FARRAW, FOO FURAW" trinkets, trade goods, doodads, etc. From the French "fanfaron". Every trapper carried a supply of these items as trade goods.
"FOTCH" knock or hit another man as in a fight.
"FREE TRAPPER" the ultimate mountain man. A trapper who was his own boss, a free man not endentured to or working for a fur trapping company.
"FREEZE INTER HIT" go to it.
"GALENA PILL, GALEENY PILL" lead bullet made from galena lead.
"GONE UNDER" one who had died or was killed.
"GRAININ A SKIN" scrapin a skin clean of flesh and fat.
"GREENHORN" a term to describe the unexperienced newcomer to the mountains.
"GREEN IS WEARED OFF" when a greenhorn becomes a mountain man.
"GREEZ HUNGRY" hungry for meat.
"HAF FROZE FER HAR or HAF STARVED FER HAR" desire to lift a scalp.
"HAR YER STICK FLOATS" what you do and what you are.
"HAWK" a tomahawk.
"HE'S GOT A TOUGH BARK" a man has a tough hide, refuses to be killed.
"HE'S NOT OPENED HIS HAND" not any presents or gifts.
"HEAP" plenty of something.
"HEAVY IN HORN" a big bull, buffalo or elk.
"HENYWAYS YE LAY YER SIGHTS" any way you look at it.
"HIT WON SHINE IN THIR CROWD" something won't do by mountain man standards.
"HIT WON WASH" it won't do.
"HITS BETTER TER COUNT A HORSES RIBS EN TER COUNT HIS TRACKS" trappers adage: better to keep an animal penned up and hobbled than to chase the animal when run off by Indians.
"HIVERNAN or HIVERNANT a man who had the experience of wintering over in the mountains a year or two. No longer a greenhorn. They were also known as "winterers".
"HOLE" a secluded mountain valley.
"HOLLOW WOODS" Indian name for the small kegs used to haul alcohol.
"HONEYDEW" or "OL VIRGINNY" terms for tobbaco.
"HUGGIN" wrestling, usually meaning the wrestling for fun and rendevous.
"HYARS DAMP POWDER AN NO WAYS TER DRY HIT" a bad situation with seemingly no way out.
"JACK OF LIKKER" a leather sack of fire water.
"JOHN BARLEYCORN" alcohol, whiskey.
"KALLATE" calculate or figure.
"KINNIKINIK" Indian word for smoking material made from inner bark and leaves of red willow, sumac, dogwood, and other common trees and bushes. Often mixed with tobacco.
"KNOW FAT COW FROM POOR BULL" expression used to mean a smart trapper.
"MANGEUR DE LARD" French, meaning "eater of pork". An inexperienced man. Term came from the fact that men from the settlements ate pork. The diet of the mountain men was buffalo and elk.
"MED BEAVER FER" lit out for, headed for.
"MEK AN INJUN COME" to kill an Injun.
"MEKKIN MEAT" the killing of an animal or a man.
"NAYBOBBIN" chattering or talking.
"NO MORE SIGN EM A SQUAWS HEART" very little sign of enemy or game, expresses it's very hard to tell what's in a woman's heart.
"OLD EPHRAIM" also "Bar", "Grizzly". A Grizzly Bear.
"OLD HOSS" a term to describe someone ("Bill, you ole hoss, I hain't seed you since last ronnyvoo!").
"ON HIS OWN HOOK" on his own or by himself.
"ON THE PERAIRA" "on the prairie", used to mean something is for free.
"ON THE TRAMP" on the move.
"PAINTER MEAT" something good doings.
"PAINTER or PANNER" panther, mountain lion.
"PAUNCH" the stomach or meatbag.
"PALAVER" a corruption of the Portugese "palavra" meaning "to talk".
"PANNER PISS" also called "panther piss". A name given to cheap whiskey.
"PARFLECHE" rawhide for making containers, moccasin soles, shields, and a sort of suitcase. Usually decorated with painted designs. From the French.
"PEMMICAN" Indian word for pounded dried meat combined with dried berries or currants, mixed with melted fat and stored in cakes. It could be eaten as it was or turned into a rich soup by adding water and heating over a fire.
"PILGRIM" a term of contempt to describe someone new to the mountains. Much the same as "greenhorn" or "flatlander".
"PIROGUE" a canoe made by hollowing out a log. French.
"PLEW" a beaver pelt. from the French word for "plus". Also, the Hudson Bay Company used to mark each "made beaver" or pelt with a + in their accounting ledgers.
"PLUCK" courage, guts.
"POPO AGIE" from the Crow language meaning "main river" or "head river". It is located north of the Sweetwater and south of the Big Horn and Wind Rivers. The site of the 1829, 1830, and 1838 rendezvous.
"PORK EATER" a term of contempt to describe the "company man" who usually ate salt pork as part of working for a fur company. (Why would anyone eat pork when they could have elk or buffler?) See: Mangeur de Lard.
"POSSIBLES" small, but highly important collection of valuables the trapper kept by his side in his shooting pouch, which could mean the difference between life and death when put afoot without a rifle. (Read the book "The Saga of Hugh Glass" by Myers)
"PUNCH THE FIRE" stoke up the fire.
"PUPS" children.
"QUEERSOME" funny or odd.
"QUIT THIS ARRER OUT'N ME" cut the arrow out of me.
"REAL BEAVER" the real thing, the best.
"REES" Arikara Indians.
"REGLAR HAWKEN" the very best of something.
"REZZED SOME HAR" lifted a scalp.
"RIGHT THE FIRST WHACK" right on the nose, right on the first try.
"ROBE SEASON" winter.
"ROBE WARMER" an Indian woman.
"RONNYVOO or RONDYVOO" rendezvous. The annual summer get-together when the trappers came down out of the mountains to trade furs, swap gossip, and generally have a good time. This was also when the trappers would buy supplies for the coming year in the mountains. These were held annually from 1825 until 1840 except for 1831 when the supply wagons failed to arrive on time.
"RUNNING MEAT" running game down on horseback.
"SEAL FAT AND SLEAK" animal pelt or horse that is smooth and well fed.
"SHINES" "that shines" means something is suitable or good. Also something very special. ("Thet there flinter of yourn shines, it truly does.")
"SHININ TIMES" a good and memorable experience, prime trapping, something special.
"SHOOT CENTER or PLUM CENTER" a trustworthy rifle.
"SHOT IN THE LIGHTS" shot through the lungs. ("Lights" was what the lungs used to be called.) Here's a note from Shoshone Woman on that very same subject: "I was talking with one of the HBC members one day about the Haggis recipe that they use to make the annual Haggis pie to be eaten at the Ft. Nisqually Bobby Burns Day celebration. They said it was made of liver, lights, and oatmeal all cooked in the paunch of the animal. So I ask what is the lights? and was told that it was the lungs. So there you go."
"SIGN" anythings that tells the trapper something about the country he's in.
"SKELP LOCKED ON TIGHT" expression meaning a trapper good enough to keep his hair.
"SKY PILOT" a preacher.
"SLIK AS SHOOTING" something done very well by trapper standards.
"SNORTIN WITH FUNK" horse animal or man wheezing and coughing after a hard run.
"SOME PUNKINS" something or somebody extraordinarily nice.
"SOURS MY MILK" upsets me.
"SQUAMPSHUS LIKE" nervous or anxious feeling.
"SQUEEZED HIS PRESENTS TWEEN HIS FINGER" gave his gifts grudgingly.
"TAKE A HORN" take a drink.
"THE WHOLE CONSARN" the whole thing.
"THROWING BUFFLER" to shoot a buffalo with one clean shot dropping in his tracks.
"TRAPPERS OATH" pledge of truth in what a man says, taken by placing the muzzle of a rifle in his mouth to signify that he is telling the truth or promises to do something.
"UP TO GREEN RIVER" plunge a knife up to the trade mark on the blade near the handle (Russell Green River Works knives).
"VOYAGEUR"French for traveler. French-Canadian conoe handler. They were thought of as cowards and held in contempt by the free trappers.
"WAAH!" also Waugh! or Wagh! Exclamation of surprise or admiration. Sounded like a grunt.
"WADE INTER HIS LIVER" stab an enemy in the gut.
"WAL, AH'LL BE ET FER A TATER" I'll be damned!
"WATER SCRAPE" the travel though a dry country without water.
"WHOLE SHITEREE" the whole shebang, the whole works.
"WINDIGO" among the French-Canadian voyageur, this was thought to be a creature who stood 20-30 feet tall and who roamed the woods in search of prey. The windigo was described as an eater of human flesh. It was used as a sort of 'boogieman" and probably had its origin amongst the Indians.
"WINTERER" someone who has spent some years trapping in Indian country and who has "wintered over". Also called a "hivernan".
"YABBERIN YAHOOS" screaming Indians or noisy companions.
"YE KIN SLIDE" you're crazy or you can go to hell.

When I was researching mountain man lingo for my book, Yellowstone Heart Song, I thought I would use some of these terms to add authenticity to the story. The more I thought about it, however, the more I decided not to. Here’s why. I wanted to portray my mountain man, Daniel Osborne, as not so much backwoods in the way he spoke, and I justified my logic with the fact that the story takes place a little before the mountain man era was in full swing, so this type of language would not have been around yet. Since he was raised mainly by a native tribe, and educated in the east, he would not have had much exposure to the cruder language of the time. Did it work for my story? Did it take away the “authenticity”? So far, I haven’t heard any negative comments from my readers. I know it’s always good to infuse as much authenticity into our stories, especially when we write historicals, but quite frankly, I’ve read several romance novels with mountain men, where this sort of language was used, and for me, I could never warm up to the characters when they spoke that way. Especially when it was completely overdone. Okay, readers, let me have it . . . but in the meantime, here is a little excerpt from Yellowstone Heart Song.
Daniel’s hard stare told her she wasn’t going to get anywhere with her question. So she decided to change the subject. “For a mountain man, the way you talk is quite . . . refined. You don’t sound like an uneducated dimwit.”
“Dimwit?” Daniel’s eyebrows pulled together.
It was her turn to grin. “Someone who’s not too bright in the head,” she offered, tapping her index finger against her temple.
“My father’s upbringing. He is always honoring my dead mother in some way, and he knew she would not want me to be without an education She certainly wouldn’t stand for it if I spoke like a . . . dimwit. He taught me to read, write, and cipher numbers during the winters when we were snowed in. Then I spent two years in Philadelphia with my father’s sister and her family. I attended Philadelphia University.”
Aimee was rather surprised that Daniel divulged so much information about himself. “Wow! I think you’ve just set a record,” she said incredulously.
“Set a record?” Daniel looked confused.
She giggled. “I’ve never heard you talk so much all at once.”
Daniel looked at her blankly.
“From your tone, I gather you didn’t like living in Philadelphia much.” Aimee was eager to keep the conversation going, glad he was finally talking to her.
“My father thought it would be good for me to live among civilized people and learn some culture.” His voice was filled with contempt.
“I can’t picture you anywhere but here.” She looked him up and down, admiring his profile. He walked gracefully, as if on air, with light, fluid movements. He carried himself tall and erect, always alert to his surroundings. His rifle was cradled casually in the crook of his arm, but she didn’t doubt for a second that it was ready to fire at a moment’s notice.  “You must have been like a fish out of water back east.”
“This has always been my home. I was born in these mountains, and I don’t wish to live anywhere else.” Daniel’s face had gone hard again as he scanned for any danger in the distance.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks for the list, Peggy. Had never heard some of these.

Kirsten Lynn said...

This was such a great post Peggy. I think with any writing, whether mountain men, cowboys, accents, etc., the author should watch how much of the vernacular is used so their character doesn't become a caricature. Like you I've read books about the mountain man, and some about cowboys where I couldn't connect with the people because they seemed more like cartoon characters. I didn't think your story was lacking, since you stressed Daniel was an educated man.

Thanks for sharing these terms! It was fun to learn some mountain man speak. :o)


Shirl said...

Hi peggy, as a reader, I think it would be very hard to read if the main characters were talking in this language all the time. Maybe some side characters (trappers)that are passing through in the story for a short time, it would feel right.
I have read alot of books on mountain men stories including all of yours, and living in NW Montana for over 21 yrs I have heard a few of the locals talk with some of these words above. It is hard to understand them in this time.

Meg said...

LOVE this list, Peggy! I love slang language of any kind. Great stuff. :-D

Unknown said...

Wow, Peggy! You've got a whole dictionary there. Thanks for sharing the terms! I've never heard a good many of them, and it's always fun to learn "new" words. (Yeah, I was THAT kid in school -- the one who always did well on vocabulary tests. It's a sickness, really. :-D )

I think you did right by not overwhelming readers with too many unfamiliar words and phrases, especially given your character's backstory. Authenticity is wonderful unless it gets in the way of the story.

The thing I just adore about Yellowstone Heartsong (in addition to the drool-worthy hero) is the way you present the scenery. I haven't been to Yellowstone since I was a child, but your descriptions are so visual I can clearly "see" every setting. :-)

Peggy Henderson said...

Lol, thanks, Kathleen. I was "that" kid in school, too. I had to take out some of the more, um, vulgar and rude terms, to keep this list PG. I can't even pronounce a lot of these.

Peggy Henderson said...

I can only imagine what it must sound like to hear "local" talk. I'd love to be a fly on the wall to listen in.

Peggy Henderson said...

Thanks, Meg. Slang does have its place.

Peggy Henderson said...

Thanks, Kirsten. I really thought I'd get grief over this, but I'm glad the story works the way it's written.

Peggy Henderson said...

LOL, Caroline. Me neither.

Ellen O’Connell said...

I think the way you did it was best too, Peggy. One of the fastest ways to lose me as a reader is vernacular. I used to be a big Elizabeth George fan, but when I opened What Came Before He Shot Her at the library (I already had reservations about the story) and saw page after page of vernacular, I slammed that book shut and left it for others.

A little for flavoring goes a long way.

Lyn Horner said...

A real eye opening list, Peggy. I've seen some of these terms in cowboy/western dictionaries, but by no mean all. It's another keeper!

mesadallas said...

Some of these I have read or heard used verbally, but most are really new to me. Fun post!

Anonymous said...

Great article Peggy. I have a mountain man story too, a time travel I'm working on. I let my other characters use some of the lingo but not so much my hero because, like you, I didn't want him to sound to backwards.