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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Acid Test

 The Acid Test

C. A. Asbrey

There are a number of saying we commonly use which originate in the Old West. Their use has spread not just into common usage, but across the world, carried by the movies and books which were consumed by enthusiastic fans. Don't be surprised to hear people in Ireland 'call shotgun' or hear someone with a cut-crystal English accent 'take the bulls by the horns.' Let's look at a few of the most common ones, a I love finding out the origins of idioms and sayings. Riding shotgun is an obvious one, based on the guard who sat beside the driver, and protected him from robbers and marauders. The phrase was oft-repeated in movies. In  the 1939 movie "Stagecoach" Marshal Curly Wilcox says, "You boys take care of the office for a couple of days. I'm going to Lordsburg with Buck. I'm gonna ride shotgun." 

'Taking the bull by the horns' is about as Western as they come. Cowboys had to deal with steers, and they are powerful animals with huge horns, They could easily gore and maim a man. I don't know how the first person found out the easiest way to bring one down was to grab them by the horns, head on. From there they could be wrangled to the ground. Whoever it was, was braver than me. 

Some contend that the phrase came from bullfighting, but it clearly worked its way from a Spanish-speaking culture to Anglophones if it did. Again, this is a phrase used in many movies.

The acid test had a meaning which extended way beyond the psychedelic LSD parties thrown by Ken Kesey in the 60s. Way before then it was related to the gold rushes which swept the USA in various waves. Prospectors looking for gold could easily test their finds in the field. Aqua regia, a mixture of one part of nitric acid and three parts of hydrochloric acid, is one of the few things which can dissolve a Noble metal, and Gold is a Noble metal. Fools Gold, sulphides which resemble gold will not react in the same way. Some micas can also be mistaken for gold. Being able to drop some acid on the nuggets proved which finds were worth hauling into town, and which weren't.

If the materials forms gold-coloured crystals, it's Fool's Gold. If the gas smells like rotten eggs, it's not gold. Real gold isn't affected by these tests and won't smell. Weathered mica might shine like real gold, and will not be eliminated by this test, but weighs nine times less than the real thing. 

'Guy' is something we take for granted when uttered by an American actor. It's so embedded in American language that it's her to believe it's actually very old English. Immigrants brought the term over.  While it fossilized and fell out of use in England, it flourished in the USA. So much so that when it was used in movies, people in England though it was cool, new and novel enough to start using it again. 

It actually comes from the ploy to blow up The Houses of Parliament in the 16th century. Their leader was Guido Fawkes, known as Guy. He was caught and tortured to name others. He was sentenced to the terrible fate of of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, but weakened by torture, he died on the rope before he could be cut down while still alive. That was fortunate for him, as he was due to be cut down whilst still alive, have his entrails removed and burned in front of him. The sentence was carried out anyway as a warming to others. A tradition grew up where British people celebrated their parliament not being decimated by bonfires and fireworks on November 5th. It was traditional to burn an effigy of Fawkes on each bonfire, and it became known as 'the guy'. 'Guy' then became a way to refer to any man who looked so scruffy they were a scarecrow-like effigy.  

Evander Berry Wall - dubbed 
King of the Dudes

It descended into slang, and immigrants took it to the USA. Notably, it fell out of use in the UK, but it was maintained in the USA, evolving until it was just a casual term for a man. Movies took it back across the pond, where a new audience found it novel and cool. It eventually even became a synonym for people - male or female.

Related to guy are 'dude' and city slickers'. Dude is thought to be short for 'Yankee Doddle Dandy', and generally meant much the same as a Dandy; a well-dressed man. A man whose appearance is of the upmost importance to him. In the east it meant a man who bought his style off the peg, perhaps over-doing it to the point of vulgarity. In the west it meant an ill-bred man from the east, ostentatious, man from the city, unfamiliar with the ways of the locals.

This also gave rise to the term 'city slickers' which meant much the same thing. The two were later conflated, meaning wealthy men coming to the Old West. Dude Ranches became a place were outsiders could experience the authentic world of the cowboy for a short time. Both 'dude' and 'city slickers' came to mean tourists or visitors. The word 'dude' even became a job description in the 1880s as a general man of all works on the railroads.  'Dude' persisted into modern time. It evolved once more, until it now means a person of any gender, age or background.   


“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 





  1. Great excerpt, very tense with a superb twist!

    Fascinating to learn about sayings that have passed into our everyday language. Really interesting. Thanks, Christine

    1. Thanks, Lindsay. I love the origins of idioms and words. Some of them were far newer than I thought.

  2. Love your blog, Christine. I love finding out the history of a word and there sure are a lot of them that come out of our western history. I wanted to read more! lol. It's tricky writing historicals because one can't take for granted the time frame when certain words came into use. I so badly wanted to use "teddy bear" in one of my books, as a nick name, but had to be more creative as "teddy bear" became associated with President Theodore Roosevelt. Apparently he was with a party of big game hunters who had all shot a bear except the president. Some aides rounded on up and tied him to a tree for the president to shoot, but he couldn't do it. This made headlines as a result of a cartoonist's drawing and shortly after, a small-time toy manufacturer got permission to name it teddy and produced thousands of teddy bears. My book was set in 1898, long before this incident happened in 1902. I love it as a nickname.

    1. Thank you for commenting. I love it as a nickname too. You are so right. There is a minefield of usage to look out for, and Teddy Bears seem so timeless us. It's like they've been around forever.

  3. What a fun and educational post. Thank you, and "The Innocents" is a great series. Doris

  4. Now this was really an interesting post about how we got some of the phrases we commonly hear. Now there are some newer ones like "litmus test"--a test using a drop of some liquid on paper that determines its content and used in a phrase to make clear what a person's character really is.
    Loved this excerpt, Christine. I like when the hero has a sense of humor.
    Marvelous post, Christine. Sorry I'm late getting here.

    1. Thank you for dropping by. Yes, I admit to loving the background behind words and idioms. I thought a few Western ones would sit well on here.