By Kathleen Rice Adams
Insults and pejoratives have been around since man’s first spoken word. Below are some that were popular in the 19th-century American west. (Terms for food are here, women here, and outlaws here.)
Bigmouth: a person who talks too much, usually about something another doesn’t want discussed. American English, c. 1889.
|Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30, 1864 (courtesy Library of Congress)|
Bottom-feeder: a reviled person, especially someone who uses a position of authority to abuse others; a lowlife. Originally used to describe fishes, the word became American slang c. 1866.
Dude: a fastidious man; fop or clotheshorse. The term originated in NYC c. 1880-1885; antecedents uncertain. Westerners picked up the word as derisive slang for any city dweller out of his element on the rough frontier. Cowboys used the phrase “duded up” to mean “dressed up.” Contemporary usage of “dude” as a minor term of endearment or indication of spiritual kinship arose in California’s surfer culture during the latter half of the 20th century.
Fiddleheaded: inane; lacking good sense; “possessing a head as hollow as a fiddle.” Arose c. 1854; American slang.
Grass-bellied: disparaging term for the prosperous (especially those whose prosperity had gone to their waist); originally applied to cattle whose stomachs were dangerously distended due to eating too much grass. The word arose prior to 1897, when it appeared in Owen Wister’s A Journey in Search of Christmas.
|Confederate soldier re-enactors charge to battle during|
150th anniversary of Battle of Gettysburg July 6, 2013
(courtesy E.J. Hersom, U.S. Department of Defense)
Greaser: derogatory term for a Hispanic of the lower classes. Arose in Texas before 1836.
Greenhorn: novice, neophyte, or newcomer; pejorative in the American west from at least 1885. In the mid-15th century the word meant any young horned animal; by the 17th century, it had been applied to new military recruits.
Heeler: unscrupulous political lackey. The U.S. slang meaning dates to about 1877, no doubt from the image of a dog following its master’s heels. The word “heel” took on that very meaning in 1810. Previously (dating to the 1660s), “heeler” described a person who attached heels to shoes.
Hellion: disorderly, troublesome, rowdy, or mischievous. Arose mid-1800s in the U.S. from Scottish and Northern English hallion, meaning “worthless fellow.” Americans may have changed the A to an E because "hell" seemed so appropriate (although the shift could as easily represent a simple mispronunciation that stuck).
|"An East-Side Politician"|
(Frederic Remington, 1894)
High yellow: offensive term for light-skinned person of mixed white and black ancestry. Arose about 1808 in the southern U.S. The term and the notion are reflected in popular songs of the mid-1800s, including the original lyrics for “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Hustler: in 1825, a thief, especially one who roughed up his victims. By 1884, meaning had shifted to “energetic worker.” The sense “prostitute” arose c. 1924.
Lead-footed: slow and/or awkward. Arose as American slang c. 1896. By the late 1940s, thanks to the burgeoning interstate highway system in the U.S., the term had taken on the opposite meaning — “fast” — as a reference to a heavy foot on a vehicle’s accelerator.
Loco: Borrowed from Spanish about 1844, the word has the same meaning in both languages: “insane.” “Loco-weed,” meaning a species of plants that make cattle behave strangely, arose about 1877.
Loony: short for lunatic; possibly also influenced by the loon bird, known for its wild cry. American English. The adjective appeared in 1853; the noun followed in 1884. “Loony bin,” slang for insane asylum, arose 1919.
Lunk: slow-witted person. Americanism; first documented appearance was in Harper’s Weekly, May 1867. Probably shortened form of lunkhead, which arose in the U.S. about 1852.
|Alexander W. Monroe, prominent|
Virginia lawyer and politician,
1875. (courtesy West Virginia
Division of Culture and History)
Mudsill: unflattering Confederate term for a Yankee. In the 1680s, the word meant “lowest sill of a house.” In March 1858, it entered American politics when James M. Hammond of South Carolina used the term derogatorily during a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Yankees embraced the term as a way of flipping Rebs the proverbial bird.
Nuts: mentally unbalanced; crazy in a negative way. From 1846, based on an earlier (1785) expression “be nuts upon” (to be very fond of), which itself arose from the use of “nuts” for “any source of pleasure” (c. 1610). Oddly, “nut” also became a metaphorical term for “head” about 1846, probably arising from the use of "nuts" to describe a mental state. “Off one’s nut” as a slang synonym for “insane” arose c. 1860. The adjective nutty, i.e. “crazy,” appeared about 1898; nut as a substitute for “crazy person” didn’t arrive until 1903. (The related British term “nutter,” meaning insane person, first appeared in print 1958.)
Panhandle: to beg. Americanism c. 1849 as a derogatory comparison of a beggar’s outstretched hand to a pan’s handle. The noun panhandler followed in 1893.
Rawheel: newcomer; an inexperienced person. Exactly when the term arose is uncertain, but diaries indicate it was in use in California’s mining districts by 1849.
Redneck: uncouth hick. First documented use 1830. Originally applied to Scottish immigrants who wore red neck scarves during the American Colonial period, the word shifted meaning as it traveled west, possibly in reference to the notion farmers’ necks became sunburned because they looked down as they worked in their fields, leaving the backs of their necks exposed.
Secesh: short for secessionist. First recorded 1860 as a pejorative for Confederates during the American Civil War.
Sidewinder: dangerously cunning or devious person. Arose American west c. 1875 as a reference to some species of rattlesnakes’ “peculiar lateral movement.”
Son of a gun: politer version of the epithet “son of a bitch,” indicating extreme contempt. It’s unknown when the American figurative connotation arose, but the literal meaning appeared 1705-15 among the British navy, during a period when officers’ wives accompanied them to sea. Babies sometimes literally were born in the shadow of a gun carriage.
|"The Squatters" by George Caleb Bingham, 1850|
(courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston )
Tenderfoot: newcomer; inexperienced person. Arose c. 1866 among miners, apparently in reference to an outsider’s need to “toughen his feet” in order to walk among rocks and stones where mining typically took place. Tender-footed, originally said of horses, leapt to humans in 1854 as a description of awkwardness or timidity.
Whippersnapper: young, presumptuous and/or impertinent person. The term arose in England c. 1665-1675, possibly as a variant of the much older (and obscure) “snippersnapper.” Modern Americans have Hollywood westerns to thank for inexorably associating the term with cranky elders in the Old West: the word was unknown prior to the popularity of western “talkies.”
Windbag: person who talks too much, especially in a self-aggrandizing way. First appearance in print 1827. Originally (late-15th C.) “bellows for an organ.”
Yellow-belly: from 1842, a Texian term for Mexican soldiers. Origin obscure, but possibly from traditional association of yellow with treachery or the yellow sashes that were part of a soldado’s uniform. Yellow became slang for “cowardly” c. 1856, but yellow-belly didn’t become synonymous with coward until 1924.
Yellow dog: contemptible person. First recorded use 1881, based on earlier meaning “mongrel” (c. 1770).
A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats. Visit her home on the range at KathleenRiceAdams.com.