Search This Blog

Friday, March 20, 2015

Wild West Words: Ladies’ Night

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Women with Bicycles, 1890
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.

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are some of the more colorful Wild West words related to women. All entered the vernacular during the 19th Century.

Ann Elizabeth Clifton,
widowed rancher
California widow: a woman whose husband is away from her for an extended period. Americanism; arose c. 1849 during the California Gold Rush.

Call girl: prostitute who makes appointments by phone; arose c. 1900. To call someone, meaning to use a phone for conversation, arose in 1889 along with the telephone.

Catty: devious and spiteful. ca. 1886 from the previous “cattish.” The meaning “pertaining to cats” dates to 1902.

Cute: pretty, 1834 from American English student slang. Previously (1731), as a shorted form of acute, the word meant “clever.”

Mary Elizabeth Browser, Union
spy while servant to Confederate
President Jefferson Davis
Drag: women’s clothing worn by a man. 1870s theater slang from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor.

Fancy woman: high-dollar whore or a kept woman.

Fast trick: loose woman.

Feathered out: dressed up.

Filly: a young, unmarried woman (literally, a young mare).

Frump, frumpy: cross, unstylish person; sour-looking, unfashionable. The noun arose ca. 1817, possibly imitative of a derisive snort. The adverb followed ca. 1825. The slang etymology is a bit obscure, although earlier uses of the noun frump meant “bad temper” (1660s) and “cross-tempered” (1746), both of which may have derived from the verb frump, which in the 1550s meant “to mock or browbeat.” All senses may have descended from the late-14th-century verb frumple, “to wrinkle; crumple.”

Ann Eliza Young,
Brigham Young's 19th
wife, divorced him.
Grass widow: divorcee

Gyp: female dog; a more polite form of “bitch.”

High-strung: temperamental, excitable, nervous; ca. 1848. Evidently based on earlier (1748) musical term referring to stringed instruments.

Hot flashes: in the menopausal sense, attested from 1887.

Hysteria: mental disorder characterized primarily by volatile emotions and overdramatic or attention-seeking behavior. When the word arose in 1801 (based on the Latin medical term hysteric), it was applied solely to women and often resulted in their confinement in an asylum. In 1866, clitoridectomy was proposed as a cure.

Working girl of the
Old West, late 1800s
Lightskirt: woman of questionable virtue.

Soiled dove: prostitute; generally considered the kindest of such terms. Probably a conflation of the 13th Century definition of “soil” (to defile or pollute with sin) and the Christian use of “dove” to indicate gentleness or deliverance.

Sporting house: brothel.

Sporting ladies/sporting women: prostitutes.

Vaulting house: brothel. Conflation of “vault,” meaning a vigorous leap (mid-15th Century) and “house.”

What are some of your favorite Wild West words?





  1. Interesting read, Kathleen! I love the rich lingo of the west. No one could paint a sentence with slack-jaw words quite like the American cowboys of the old west! The "Vaulting" house is a new one on me. My soiled doves in my WIP refer to my main character as "Calico" - short for the term "Calico Woman" which refers to the MC's wholesome purity.

    1. I love the lingo, too, Shayna. Imagine how bland the Old West would've been without the creative expressions it contributed to the lexicon.

      "Calico" is another one of those words that started off meaning one thing and then switched directions. In the 1870s, the term "Calico Alley" became associated with the part of town where men could find the cribs of "bargain-priced" doves.

  2. I live surrounded by cowboys and country folk and many of these words are definitely part of the local culture and lingo. In fact, my husband (while we were still dating )....told several of his buddies that I was " a pretty little filly." I was pretty flattered!

    Other old-time expressions that come to mind (but not necessarily referring to women) include words like potlikker (colloquial spelling); rank; rough stock; supper (NOT dinner - dinner is lunch); kettle (not pot); mush (not hot cereal or oatmeal); and others (can't think of them right now!).

    Language is such a reflection of culture. As an anthropology major/English minor and lover of language, colloquial speech has always been one of my favorite area of study! I am always telling students that language has power; vocabulary is so important. I simply love words. And I wish Latin were something still taught more often in our schools (it was a great opportunity for me....)....but that leads into another aspect of language. :-)

    Thanks for a fun and informative blog! Good job.....

    1. Gail, I'll bet there are a bunch of Wild West words out in your neck of the woods! It seems like ranching families pass the language down through the generations along with the land.

      I'm glad somebody else uses knows the word "rank"! Horsemen and -women still use that word, but others seem a mite nonplussed by it.

      Language does have power. That's one of the big reasons kids need a good education. The slightest twist of a phrase --- or the substitution of one word for another --- can change the meaning of a spoken or written message.

      You need to write a post about the colloquialisms and terms specific to ranching! I'd love to read that. :-)

  3. A couple terms were new to me, but I have heard most of them. It's so interesting, and entertaining, to learn where those terms came from. I think many people love to create new terminology. I remember when computer terms started to emerge. They made me laugh--like mouse. "Get back on track" is now "get on line", which may have already changed to something even newer. Language is always evolving. It's really fun to hear the new words and phrases emerge.
    I really enjoyed reading this blog, Kathleen.

    1. Thanks, Sarah! Etymology is one of the things I do for fun. (Yeah, I'm pretty dull.) Just don't get me started on the newest official Scrabble dictionary. Did you know WYSIWYG is an approved Scrabble "word"? It's an acronym, for heaven's sake! GAH!

      Words come and go really quickly these days, too. Take "grok," for example. Robert Heinlein made up the word for one of his sci-fi novels, and it was popular for a time in the 1960s and '70s, then it disappeared. Now it's back, among the tech-literati. ("Grok" is a geek-speak verb meaning "to understand.")

  4. Thanks for posting this, Kristy. Some of these words were new to me, but many were some I'd heard or read in the papers of my great-great-grandparents who lived and worked in the Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains. I think some of the language goes back to the time Daniel Boone began to explore west of the Smoky Mountains. I enjoyed reading this and making notes for future use. Thanks again.

    1. You're welcome, Agnes! I keep an ever-expanding Wild West-to-English dictionary on my website. The whole thing needs to be organized better, and I'm working on that, but I hope it may be useful for other writers. :-)

  5. Kathleen,

    Old timey words and phrases are so interesting. Here are some more of the decidedly feminine persuasion.

    **A mail-order bride was called a catalog woman and a heart-and-hand woman.

    It was often said that these were " o' them widders that want 'er weeds plowed under".


    "Many a woman of this kind was a widow of the grass (divorced) variety, but she didn't let none of it grow under her feet".

    **Go-easter - a carpetbag purchased at a store for a trip

    **Mac - a man who makes his living pimping women of the redlight districts of cow towns

    **School teacher was a:

    Wisdom bringer - an 'imported' eastern woman who goes west to be a school teacher. Cowmen commonly had little respect for their knowledge because, anyone who didn't know cows "...couldn't teach a settin' hen to cluck".


    Live dictionary - a school teacher; talkative woman - a woman who "...was shore in the lead when tongues was give out".

    **Cookie pusher - waitress in a restaurant

    **Sage hen - nickname for a woman


    Draggin' her rope - a woman trying to catch a husband "...she might have a short rope, but she shore throwed a wide loop" and to "throw or swing a wide loop" meant to live a free life.


    Dropped his rope on her - said of the man when he married.

    **Wife or sweetheart of a rancher: cow bunny, long-haired partner, runnin' mate

    **Montgomery Ward woman is a woman sent west on approval (specifically, a woman that a man deemed homely or otherwise unattractive) 0_o

    **Painted cat - term for a woman who worked in a frontier dance hall or bawdy house

    **Puncture lady - a woman who prefers to sit on the sidelines at a dance and gossip rather than dance, hence she punctures someone's reputation

    1. Kaye, where were you when I was putting this post together? All of those are great!

      The Roses really should put our heads together and come up with the definitive dictionary of western historical romance words, terms, and phrases. Wouldn't that be fun?

      The whole widder thing seems quaint and amusing to us now, but I'll bet those poor widder women back in the Old West found the assumptions exasperating. Jessie deals with a few misconceptions about widders in Prodigal Gun. Let's just say the polecats holding the misconceptions don't fare well. ;-)

    2. Oh, my goodness! Even more wonderful words to study over! Thanks, Kaye!

    3. I've come to the conclusion Kaye is dangerous. I've also come to the conclusion she needs to plunk her Wild West lexicon in a chair and write more stories! She's letting all these great sayings go to waste. ;-)

  6. Oops, I neglected to add my "go-to" sources for western words:

    "Dictionary of the American West" by Win Blevins and "Western Words, a Dictionary of the Old West" by Ramon F. Adams.

    1. Aren't those wonderful books? I own very dogeared copies. Poor things! :-D

      Since you're into this sort of thing too, take a look at these when you get a chance. I've found the first two particularly helpful. The first has been out of print for quite some time, so it may be hard to find, sadly.

      A Dictionary of the Old West, 1850-1900 by Peter Watts
      Cowboy Slang by Edgar R. "Frosty" Potter
      Cowboy Lingo by Ramon F. Adams
      Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green
      English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh
      Slang Through the Ages by Jonathon Green
      Wicked Words by Hugh Rawson (cursing and bawdy language)
      Heaven's to Betsy by Charles Earle Funk

    2. Um... Well this is embarrassing. There should be no apostrophe in "Heavens." Punctuation treachery is afoot. **I** certainly didn't stick the sneaky little thing in there.

    3. LOL Don't you just hate those pesky inappropriately placed apostrophes? I went searching and I found my copy of "A Dictionary of the Old West" It's a treasure.

    4. I. Love. That. Book. Poor thing is going to fall apart one of these days.

  7. Just the type of reading I so enjoy after a day at work. Thank you for adding to my knowledge. Keep 'em comin'. Doris

    1. You're welcome, Doris! I learn so much from each of your posts, the least I can do is return the favor from time to time. :-)

  8. Tex,
    This is wonderful, as is Kaye's list. Sorry I'm late to the party. And I love the list of books. I've got some, now I need to get more. :-)

    1. One can never have too many dictionaries...although I imagine my bookshelves would disagree. :-D

  9. I'm late too, but that's the great thing about the internet--we're never "really" late--it's there forever. LOL Love this list, Kathleen. A lot of these, I had no idea how the word came to be. You've "larnt me somethin'" today!

    1. Whoa. I larnt the Okie somethin'? Land sakes. What is the world comin' to? ;-)

      Some folks collect stamps.