Western Slang, Lingo, and Phrases – A Writer’s Guide to the Old West

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Cowboys talking, 1939, Lee Russell

Cowboys talking, 1939, Lee Russell

Ever wonder what some of them thar’ words mean when you’re reading an Old West novel, watching a historic movie, or maybe even digging through your grandparents’ old letters? Well, here’s a guide to help!

From the wild and wooly mining camps to the rampages of the Civil War, to the many cowboys riding on the range, these folks often used terms and phrases that are hard to figure out today. Yet other sayings still remain in everyday language, though usually specific to certain regions.

From the pages of period newspapers, books, and century-old dictionaries comes the slang, lingo, and phrases of the American West. Even if you’re not looking for a definition, you’ll get a peek into the charm and character of a historic era.

Begins with “A”


Newton, Kansas cowboy

Cowboy Scene, Newton, Kansas, 1908

Abisselfa – By itself.

Abandons – Foundlings. Also applied to a street prostitute.

Above-Board – In open sight, without artifice, or trick.

Above One’s Bend – Out of one’s power, beyond reach.

Above Snakes – If you were “above snakes,” you were above ground – meaning still alive.

Absquatulate – To leave or disappear.

Ace in the Hole – A hideout or a hidden gun.

Ace-High – Depending upon the context, this might mean “first-class and respected”, or it could mean a winning poker hand.

According to Hoyle – Correct, by the book. “Hoyle” is a dictionary of rules for card playing games.

Acknowledge the Corn – To admit the truth, to confess a lie, or acknowledge an obvious personal shortcoming.

Acock – Knocked over, defeated, astounded, suddenly surprised.

Acorn Calf – A weak or runty calf.

Acquisitive – Booty, plunder.

Acreocracy – Signifies a landlord interest.

Across Lots – The fastest way possible, in the most expeditious manner.

Actual – Money.

Adam’s Ale – Water.

Addle-headed – Empty-headed, not smart.

Addle-pot – A spoilsport

Advantage – Pocket advantage – Carrying a derringer in a coat pocket that is charged and at half cock. Sometimes a shot is fired through the pocket itself.

Afeared – Scared, frightened.

Afterclaps – Unexpected happenings after an event is supposed to be over.

Afly – To become an expert at.

Agee, Ajee – Askew, crooked.

Frontier Slang, Lingo & Phrases Book by Kathy Alexander

Now in book form. More Terms, Expanded Definitions, Reverse Lookup, More Pictures

A Hog-Killin’ Time – A real good time. “We went to the Rodeo Dance and had us a hog-killin’ time.”

Airin’ the Lungs – A cowboy term for cussing.

Airin’ the Paunch – Vomit, throw-up, regurgitate. He’s “airing the paunch” after a heavy bout of drinking.

Airish – A little cool.

Air Line Road – A railroad track when it passes over the level unbroken prairie.

Airtights – Canned goods, such as canned beans, milk, or fruit.

Alfalfa Desperado – What cowboys often called a farmer.

A Lick and a Promise – To do a haphazard job. “She just gave it a lick and a promise.”

All Abroad – At a loss, not comprehending.

All Beer and Skittles – Unpleasant, not so happy.

All Down But Nine – Missed the point, not understood. This referenced missing all nine pins in bowling. (Yes, there was bowling during Old West times.)

All-fired – Very, great, immensely; used for emphasis. He is just too all-fired lazy to get any work done around here. Also “hell-fired” and “jo-fired.”

Allers – Always

All My Eye – Nonsense, untrue.

All Over – Bearing a resemblance to some particular object

All-overish – Uncomfortable. “I was just all-overish around that steely-eyed man.”

All the Caboose – Everywhere

All the Shoot – The whole assembly, all the party.

All to Pieces – Completely, absolutely.

Allot Upon – To intend, to form a purpose. “I allot upon going to Boston.”

All-Standing – Without preparation, suddenly.

Ambush – The scales used by grocers, coal-dealers, etc. Call such because the were always “lying in weight.”

Among the Willows – Dodging the Law.

Amputate Your Timber, or mahogany – Go way, run off.

Anasazi Navajo for “ancient ones,” this word describes an ancient tribe of the Southwest. Some Navajo say this meaning is a mistranslation for a word that means “ancient enemies.” Another interpretation is “ancient ancestors.”

Angelicas – Young unmarried women.

Anglomaniacs – Another name for those “back east,” ultra-English.

Angoras – Hair-covered, goat-hide chaps. Especially good in cold weather.

Annex – To steal. This became popular at the time Texas was annexed, which was regarded by many as a theft.

Anti-fogmatic – Raw rum or whiskey. “I see that bartender is mixing a couple of anti-fogmatics.”

Anti-goglin – Lopsided.

Apple – Saddle horn.

Apple Jack – A liquor distilled from cider, also called cider brandy.

Apple Peeler – Pocket Knife

Apple Pie Order – In top shape, perfect order.

Making CoffeeArbuckle’s –  Slang for coffee, taken from a popular brand of the time. “I need a cup of Arbuckle’s.”

Argufy – Argue, to have weight as an argument.

Argy – Argue

Arikara (also Arikaree) – This term is believed to mean “horns,” after this tribe’s ancient custom of wearing hair ornaments that stuck upright and were made of bone.

Arkansas Toothpick – A long, sharp knife. Also known as a California or Missouri toothpick.

Armas – Spanish forerunner of chaps. Cowboys fastened two large pieces of cowhide to the side of the saddle that protected their legs from thorns and brush.

Ary – Either.

Ash-Hopper – A lie cask, or box for ashes, resembling a hopper in a mill.

Ask No Adds – Ask no favor.

At Sea – At a loss, not comprehending. “When it comes to understanding women, I’m at sea.”

Attitudinize – To assume an affected attitude.

Atween – Between.

Atwixt – Between. “There were hard feelings atwixt them.”

Auger – The big boss.

Axle Grease – Butter

Here’s a fun video from Arizona Ghostriders we thought you might enjoy.

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The Code of the West

Evolution of American English

Old West Insults

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Old West Wisdom

Time Line of the American West

Words of the Old West