Saturday, June 22, 2013


A discussion of western exclamations...

What do you say when you don't know what to say? The casual profanity common today was taboo in the Old West, most especially in the presence of women and children...and "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" had yet to be invented.

Many of the terms commonly heard today were considered profanity in that era. For instance, one did not take God's name in vain, so euphemisms for God and his rival the Devil abounded. One most certainly did not use the word "damn," and as for the even more vulgar terms heard in today's society ... forget about it. However, a few of the terms we consider coarse or vulgar today once meant something entirely different. One of the first to come to mind is, of course, "gay," but there were other words and phrases which once had wildly different meanings than they do today. A gentleman, and most Western males aspired to be one, knew which words he could use and which were taboo.

A gentleman did not even discuss such things as sex, gender, or certain body parts in public. A bull was often called a "cow critter," and a leg was a limb. At one point in the century, even the legs of furniture were covered lest someone see more than they should. A Western gentleman was far more polite than many men you'll meet today. Part of this, it is to be admitted, was due to the ready availability of the six-gun and the ready acceptance of the use of the same. If you felt that a man showed less than sterling manner, you were not only entitled to "call him out," but were expected to do so. This resulted in an extremely polite population.

People did not curse in public, but substituted a more acceptable euphemism for the unacceptable terms. Women, especially, never sullied their lips with profanity, but were expected at all times to speak in soft and gentle tones. Even the act of cursing was not directly spoken of, but referred to as "airing the lungs."

Here are just a few of the many exclamations and euphemisms you might have heard in the Old West.

All-fired, hell-fired, or joe-fired: completely or totally. Don't be in such an all-fired hurry. He's joe-fired determined to go through with it.

All my eye: nonsense, untrue. All my eye, you ain't no gentleman!

Balderdash: nonsense, empty babble. You say you won the rodeo? Balderdash!

Balls: to make a mistake. If he don't watch out, he's going to balls that up good!

Beat the Dutch, beat the Devil: above what is expected; an exclamation of surprise. He's playing that horn to beat the Dutch. Don't that just beat the Devil?

Blame or blamed: damn or damned. Dad blame it! I'm going to ride that blamed hoss if it kills me.

Bosh, bunkum: nonsense. That's a load of bunkum!

Blazes: hell. Go to blazes!

Bully, bully for you: congratulations, good job, excellent; can be sarcastic as well. You rode that ornery hoss? Well, bully for you!

By jiminy: an exclamation. I'll clean his plow, by jiminy!

Cap the climax: exceeds expectations. That'll cap the climax all right.

Claptrap: nonsense. Don't feed me a bunch of claptrap!

Corral dust: lies and tall tales. He's full of corral dust.

Crimany, crimminy: an expression of surprise. Crimany, it's cold out here!

Dad or dog: God. I'll be a dog-blamed fool!

Dang, darn, dash, ding or drat: damn; also variations such as gosh-ding, gol-durn-it, dagnabbit, ding-blamed, dang-blatted or whatever other syllables a creative curser could invent.

Deuce, dickens: the Devil. The deuce you say! That hurt like the dickens!

Don't care a continental: don't give a damn.

Do tell: an exclamation of surprise. Do tell! I had no idea the man was married.

Fudge: an expression of contempt, usually of what was just said.

Go boil your shirt: get lost, take a hike.

Gosh or G: God; usually combined with some euphemism for damn. Gosh-dang-it, I told you to tie that filly up before you saddled her!

Gummy: an exclamation. Gummy, I had no idea you'd take offense!

Hobble your lip: shut up.

Humbug: nonsense. Bah, humbug!

I dad: an exclamation of surprise. I dad, where'd that extra ace come from?

I swan, I swamp it, I swow: corruptions of "I swear;" an exclamation of surprise. I swan if he didn't win that hand!

Land sakes, law sakes, or sakes alive: (for the) Lord's sake, a generic exclamation. Land sakes, is that the sheriff? Sakes alive, but I'm powerful thirsty!

Man alive: a generic exclamation. Man alive, that's a big rattler!

Old Scratch: the Devil. Old Scratch have you for that!

Poppy-cock: nonsense. That is pure poppy-cock!

Pshaw, shaw: an exclamation of disbelief or disgust. Pshaw, I missed the son of a biscuit.

Push your barrow: get out of here.

Rip-roaring, rip-snorting, rip-or rib-staver: exceeds all expectations. That was a rip-snorting rodeo! I had a rip-roaring time.

Sam Hill: the Devil. What in the Sam Hill do you think you're doing?

Shut your cock holster: shut your mouth.

Some pumpkins: something impressive. That five-story building sure is some pumpkins!

Son of a biscuit: son of a bitch. That little son of a biscuit cheated at poker!

Stall your mug: make yourself scarce.

Take the rag off: surpass, exceed expectation. Don't that take the rag off?

Tarnation, or 'nation: damnation. What in tarnation is going on over there?

Wipe your chin: shut up.

Oh, and the exclamation in the title? Nobody really knows where it came from. It seems to have first occurred in a song from 1842, and the songwriter may have just made the thing up to fit his rhyme scheme.


A Dictionary of the Old West, Peter Watts, 1987
Everyday Life in the 1800's, Marc McCutcheon, 1993
Heavens to Betsy! and Other Curious Sayings, Charles Funk, 1955
Legends of America website:


  1. Dang, this post just busts my jaw! Thanks, J.E.S.

  2. Thanks for the post, J.E.S. That is very useful and I have file it away fro reference.


  3. I love the story of the origins of "poppycock." In many ways, you could call it a good old New York word. And I do mean old New York. It is a Dutch word- pappekak -that literally means "soft poop." In other words, "verbal diarrhea." It was used in the Dutch colony New Amsterdam; when the English took it over and renamed it "New York", this was one of the many Dutch words that caught on. And of course, a lot of the wealthiest Dutch colonists' families became the "old money" in New York... Roosevelt, Van Buren, etc., and thought the English-born citizens were beneath them. Poppycock.

  4. Love this post, JES! Very interesting--I learned a lot of new words today!

  5. What great fun! I remember hearing some of these from my great-grandfather. Doris

  6. Although if you look through court records from the time (especially in eastern cities), you'll find that many of the swear words we hear today were in use then, by a certain segment of the population -not everyone was a gentleman.

  7. Loved the post, J.E.S.! Interestingly, during idle moments on the trail or at the ranch, one of the more amusing pastimes in which cowboys engaged was cursing contests. The challenge was not to prove one had the foulest mouth, but to come up with the most creative insult. Although sometimes the competitions reportedly degenerated into vulgarity fests, most of the time participants took a great deal of pride in combining "clean" words in unexpected ways. :-)

  8. Great post! I'm copying and saving these. Many are still used in Texas, but some were new to me. Thanks for the tutorial.

  9. Same here. This is definitely a keeper.

  10. Thanks for all the information - the 'curses' are useful to colour a story and make it sound authentic - wish these were the only swear words heard today!
    Keeping this info on file.

  11. What in tarnation is going on? I still use some of these relics!

  12. Well, my other post published as I thought I'd do it again:

    What in the Same Hill (or tarnation) is going on here? I still use some of the classic relics!

  13. We can curse like blue blazes now and no one will know! :)

  14. Enjoyed this post and the comments that followed. Love learning the origin of poppycock. I'll have to relate this to my husband who is mostly Dutch.

  15. Thanks for all the lovely comments! I love the story about Poppycock and cursing contests, too.

  16. How the dickens did I miss this great post? ;-D LOVE IT, and I had to use "dagnabbit" for my hero in the Double Series (and defend the use). Very true that gents (and women) really didn't start the real cussing in public until after the turbulent 60s... Now, I wish the Duke had said "... you sons of biscuits" after all. SIGH.