Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


I WAS LISTENING to Gunsmoke on SiriusXM’s Radio Classics, and it struck me that Marshall Dillon, Chester, Doc and Kitty all talk more or less like we do. On the other hand, the one primary source that comes to mind, a muleskinner recorded for a folk project in the 1930s, suggests quite a different lingo.

This got me thinking about slang of the early American west, a subject that calls out for research.

A lot of my education of the old west came from John Wayne. He was always a bit laconic, conveying a lot of meaning in a few well-chosen words. Striding in tall, as only the Duke could do, he’d bring order to matters by saying, “Whoa, take ’er easy there, pilgrim.” And the other guy would wisely settle down.


The Duke, at Orange County John Wayne Airport.

The principal character in Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains had a similarly taciturn manner. One of his classic retorts is when Trampas, the bad guy, calls him a sonofabitch (all one word, and more than a bit shocking in 1902 print). The Virginian lays his pistol on the table and says merely, “When you call me that, smile.


The Virginian confronts his rival Trampas.

A primary source comes from seminal folk material collected in the 1930s by John Avery Lomax and, later, his son Alan. Recounting work as a muleskinner, their subject used rather more colorful language than Trampas’s. I guess this was how one got the mules’ attention.

In my own latter-day experience, I can confirm that modern cowboys don’t waste words. Once on an R&T comparison drive, long before cell phones, we had a car break down adjacent to a herd of steers being rounded up and done to whatever one does to a herd these days. Does branding still exist? Do they still drive them to the Dodge City railhead and then paint the town red?

Whatever. I walked up to four cowboys and said to one, “Uh, we have a stranded car here. Is there a phone nearby we might use? We’re with Road & Track. Blah, blah, blah

The cowboy didn’t say a word. He just pointed at the top ranchhand.

I repeated it all to the top ranchhand and he said, “Dewey’s got a phone over yonder…. But he don’t like strangers….”

Later, I recounted this conversation to a professor friend who occasionally enjoyed ranch work as a hobby. He said ranchhands will often go all day without uttering more than a few necessary words.

However, should you encounter a loquacious one, here are a few bits of authentic cowboy lingo.

Bogus was short for calibogus, a libation of rum, spruce beer and molasses. Its origin is unknown and apparently unrelated to bogus in the sense of phony. This latter usage, dating from the early 1800s, is related to the gizmo producing counterfeit coins.

A Monkey Ward Cowboy was a tenderfoot, a neophyte. The term comes from Montgomery Ward, established in 1872 as a dry-goods mail order retailer. Country folks, particularly out west, got city stuff delivered by train or stagecoach or …. “O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-coming down the street, Oh please let it be for me!”


A Wells Fargo wagon. Also available here with musical accompaniment from The Music Man.

To see the elephant implied an adventure. Maybe it was just experiencing the civilization of town. Maybe it was more exotic, like a traveling circus that had such an exotic beast. In time, it came to suggest a bit of disappointment.

Spanish gave cowboys many words, albeit in corrupted form. A buckaroo, another name for cowboy, came directly from vaquero, with the same meaning. Harsh country was a mally-pie, getting its name from malpaís, Spanish for bad country.

All down but nine had ironic as well as historical overtones: Bowling nine-pins was known in the old west, and having “all down but nine” was akin to modern phrases such as “playing with less than a full deck” or, as I recently heard on a Miss Marple mystery, “being two books short of Ecclesiastes.”

Miss Jane Marple lives in St. Mary Mead, nowhere near Dodge City. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016


  1. Andy Bornhop
    January 29, 2016

    DJ: My dad used to reverse an old expression and tell me he had “seen the ocean and smelled the elephant” as a way of indicating he had traveled far and wide. (He wasn’t a cowboy, but he was a Missouri farm kid who spent 22 years in the US Navy. And had a good sense of humor.) Hope you are well. Andy

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