Monday, April 13, 2015

Wild West Words: Outside the Law

Thomas Mitchell, Jack Buetel, and Walter Huston in
The Outlaw (HowardHughesProductions, 1941)
By Kathleen Rice Adams

The American West provided fertile ground for mangling the English language. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, when folks weren’t shooting it out, rounding up ornery cattle, protecting their scalps, or gambling, they had to fill the empty hours somehow.

Some Old West words and phrases represented modifications to the meaning of existing terms. Others arose from mispronunciation. Quite a few someone simply made up. Many remain in use today, though sometimes only in regional dialect.

Some of the following terms applied to outlaws and outlawry are older than one might imagine. Western authors may be dismayed to find others are newer than they hoped.

Buscadero: gunfighter. From the Spanish buscadero, literally a searcher. The origin of the slang usage is obscure; possibly “seeking trouble.”

Bushwhacker: cowardly enemy who strikes from ambush. Americanism; arose c. 1809. Oddly, the verb “bushwhack” arose later, c. 1837. During the American Civil War (at least from 1862-1865), “bushwhacker” acquired a less-pejorative connotation, meaning any irregular who took to the woods to strike from cover and then vanish. The term was applied in equal measure to both friend and foe.

Release flier for The Law
and the Outlaw
, 1913
CabrĂ³n: an outlaw of low breeding and even lower principles. In Spanish, the word means “goat.” Origin of the slang usage is obscure.

Cold-blooded: unfeeling, dispassionate, cruel. Arose c. 1828 from the old (1600s) notion that excitement increased human blood temperature. Reptiles have been called cold-blooded since about 1600, and the reptilian image also played into the description as applied to killers and other reprehensible sorts who acted without apparent regret.

Cold lead: from the mid-1800s until the 1920s, a bullet. About 1920, usage changed and “hot lead” became slang for bullets. The reason is unclear.

Cowboy of the Pecos: rustler, based on the notion safety could be found in the lawless area around Texas’ Pecos River.

Dressed to kill: double entendre meaning not only that a man wearing two guns most likely was a killer, but also that wearing a double rig (a holstered pistol on each hip) made it difficult for a gunman to do anything with either hand without implying a threat; therefor, dudes who adopted the practice were likely to be killed.

Dry-gulch: to ambush someone, particularly in a cowardly manner.

Get the drop on: to obtain a marked advantage, especially with the help of a gun. Probably dates to the California gold rush of 1849, when claim-jumpers sometimes seemed to materialize from the ether before hijacking a profitable claim at gunpoint. First documented appearance in print 1869 in Alexander K. McClure’s Three Thousand Miles through the Rocky Mountains: “So expert is he with his faithful pistol, that the most scientific of rogues have repeatedly attempted in vain to get ‘the drop’ on him.”

GTT: on the wrong side of the law. Short for "gone to Texas," this usage dates at least to the Civil War, when deserters and other former soldiers from both armies — suddenly unemployed and inured to violence — migrated to still-wild, wide-open Texas, “lost” their names, and took up outlawry. (Originally, “Gone to Texas” was the phrase families ruined by the financial panic of 1819 painted on doors and fence signs before lighting out to begin anew in greener pastures south of the Mexican border.) In his 1857 book Journey through Texas, Frederick Law Olmstead noted that many newcomers to the state were suspected of having skipped out on something “discreditable” back home. Thomas Hughes, in his 1884 book G.T.T., wrote “When we want to say that it is all up with some fellow, we just say, ‘G.T.T.’ as you’d say, ‘gone to the devil,’ or ‘gone to the dogs.’”

Days on the Range (Hands Up!)
by Frederic Remington
Gun: until the early 20th Century, cannon or long guns like shotguns and rifles. Handguns were called pistols or — after Samuel Colt introduced his first patented repeating revolver in 1836 — six-guns or six-shooters.

Gunman: shootist; gunfighter. First recorded use 1903 in a New York newspaper. (Gunsman, with an S in the middle, arose on the American frontier during the Revolutionary period.)

Gun shark: gunfighter. Arose mid-1800s from the earlier (1700s) use of “shark” to indicate a voracious or predatory person, based on the reputation of the fish.

Heeled up: armed. Arose ca. 1866 from the 1560s usage of “heel” to mean attaching spurs to a gamecock’s feet.

Hogleg: large revolver. Originally referred to the Bisley single-action Colt (first manufactured 1894), but later generalized to any big pistol.

Holdup: a robbery. American English colloquialism, 1851. The verb “to hold up,” meaning “to stop by force and rob,” didn’t arise until 1887, apparently from the robbers’ command to raise hands. “Hold up,” meaning to delay, dates to 1837.

Hustler: thief, especially one who roughs up his victims. Arose 1825. Sense of “energetic worker” is from 1884; sense of “prostitute” dates from 1924.

Lam: to run off. U.S. slang dating to 1886; of uncertain origin. “On the lam,” meaning flight to avoid prosecution or consequences, arose c. 1897.

On the cuidado:
running from the law. From the Spanish warning ten cuidado, which means “be careful.”

Owlhoot: outlaw. “Riding the owlhoot trail” referred to a man who had left the straight and narrow to become an outlaw. One explanation of origin came from a man living in the Indian Territory of eastern Oklahoma around 1870. He claimed the name came about from the Indians in the area using owl hoots to signal danger or someone’s approach. Another tale indicates outlaws were called “owlhoots” because, when they were getting ready to ambush somebody in the dark, they would imitate the hooting of owls to signal one another.

Jesse James' Oath, or Tracked to Death by W.B.
Lawson (Street & Smith Publishers, Dec. 1897)
Pecos swap: theft. Again, based on the reputation of Texas’s Pecos River area.

Pistolero: expert with a handgun. Adopted from Mexican Spanish, in which the word has the same meaning.

ambushed (literally or figuratively) in a particularly devious or cunning way. Dates at least to 1818.

Safecracker (also safe-cracker): individual with a talent for liberating money from locked vaults. Arose ca. 1897, as a reference to robbers who used dynamite to thwart security boxes.

Shootist: expert marksman. Arose 1864.

dangerously cunning or devious person. Arose American West ca. 1875 as a reference to some species of rattlesnakes’ “peculiar lateral movement.”

robbery at gunpoint. Arose 1887 from the earlier (1846) verb “stick up,” meaning to rob someone at gunpoint. The phrase “stick up for,” meaning defend, is from 1823. The archaic noun “stick-up” arose ca. 1857 as a colloquial term for a stand-up collar.

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. Vist her home on the range at


  1. Great list, Kathleen. Especially the time frames in which they were used. I'm familiar with most, but the term "Gun shark," is a new one for me.

    1. I always thought "gun shark" was "gun sharp." I was glad to come across that one. :-D

      I freely admit to being a word nerd. I'm always nervous about including a western-sounding term unless I knew when it arose. Next time, I'll post a list of terms whose "birthdays" surprised me because they were either much older or much newer than I thought.

  2. Ah, a whole list of luscious words! Thanks for a tour through the word candy store, Kathleen. I learn something from you every time you post.

    1. If you weren't such an illiterate hick, Vonn, things like this wouldn't happen. ;-)

      I have fun researching words. This is only the tip of the iceberg. :-D

    2. You would think they'd call us illiterate hicks something that's much easier to spell.

      This will be a series? Yippee!

    3. A li'l spellin' edukashun never hurt nobody. ;-)

  3. Great post. It's often hard to pin down when some phrases and words arose, Many times you'll find conflicting sources on dates so I'll bet you had to do some research to find which dates seemed the most reliable. Even ordinary words you wouldn't think would be that new will sometimes surprise you when it's discovered they weren't in use during the time period you want to use them.

    1. I'll tell you what -- it's sometimes a pure-dee struggle to figure out which source is correct. You've got that right, JD!

      Lots of words are older or newer than I thought. "Gunman" surprised the heck out of me. I've yet to find a reliable source for the age of "gunfighter," although I suspect that word, like "gunslinger," may be pure Hollywood. DRAT! I forgot to include "gunslinger." It arose in the mid-20th Century in Hollywood.

      "Call girl" (as in "prostitute") is older than I thought. So is "drag" (as in "men dressing in women's clothing").

      The problem with using any given term anywhere, anytime, is matching readers' expectations. If they think a word is too contemporary, it won't matter how much backup the author has for the word's legitimacy. **sigh**

  4. You never fail to surprise and inform Kathleen. Love the lessons. My favorite passtime now is place names the were mangled in translations. Just getting started on that one.
    Keep up the lessons, teacher. (Grin). Doris

    1. Gotta keep you on your toes there, Doris. ;-)

      I wish you'd write something about those place names! You always present the most fascinating stuff. :-)

    2. I'll work on that for one of my PRP post.

  5. My personal favorite is carbron. I never heard it before, but when I saw it means "goat". Well, I liked it right there. Even though I have heard many of these terms, I didn't have a clue how they got started. Westerners are pretty dang inventive when it comes to language.
    In Tombstone (my favorite western), Wyatt tells a smart aleck something like "go to heels". I now see that means, "get your guns out" or shut up. Of course I liked that Wyatt finally got fed up and wacked him with the bitt of his gun.
    I still don't know what Doc Holiday meant when he said, "I'll be your daisy." What does that mean, Kathleen?
    I must need an interpreter on western lingo. LOL
    Loved your blog.

    1. I thought Holliday's phrase was "I'll be your huckleberry". I.e., I'm here for you.

    2. Sarah, westerners and southerners are both dang inventive. There are lots of southern expressions that make no sense to folks in other parts of the country. "Y'all" has become fairly common, but "fixin' to" still flummoxes some. Did you ever see My Cousin Vinny? The whole running gag about grits still makes me giggle.

      I don't remember Doc saying that in Tombstone, but I can just see that coming out of Val Kilmer's mouth. :-D Was it in the context of a threat? Maybe he was insinuating he'd leave the guy "pushing up daisies." (Now I'm gonna have to research that phrase to see when it cropped up. :-D )

      I'm glad you enjoyed the blog, Sarah. You always make my day. HUGS!!!!

    3. AHA! I remember that line, Anon, and that sounds just about right. Thanks! :-)

    4. Yes! It was by huckleberry, not daisy. I can't even do a darn movie quote right. What the neck does that mean?
      Southern phrases can be confusing to some like "over yonder" and "I swaney".
      I laughed all the way through My Cousin Vinny. Yankees don't understand grits or good barbeque.

    5. You're both right! In the movie Tombstone, Doc Holliday said "I'm your huckleberry" and "You're a daisy if you do."

    6. Where were you when the shootin' started, Vonn? Just like you illiterate hicks to hide out in the bushes until the fight's over. ;-)

  6. Very interesting and useful post, Kathleen. (Especially for a Brit like me). I used Dry Gulch in the title of my last novel and I'm working on a sidewinder idea. I love these words and terms that are so colourfully evocative of deceit and duplicity.

    1. Keith, say it ain't so! My favorite Wild West doc loves deceit and duplicity? I'm crushed. ;-)

      I'm glad you found something in this post useful. I always get so much out of your medical posts. I'm so looking forward to your forthcoming book The Doctor's Bag: Medicine and Surgery of Yesteryear. Hurry up with that one! :-)

  7. Great list, Kathleen. Just as an aside, recently I've found that some guest ranch wranglers use the term, "bushwhacking" to mean riding off-trail. Might be peculiar to those guest/dude ranches but it's not isolated use.

  8. gun is the symbol of USA. guns amount equal to the population of usa.