Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Researching Western Slang/Lingo

by Amber Leigh Williams

While researching my current western romance trilogy, I learned more about cattle ranching than I had the previous time around. I came across some slang and lingo once essential to cattle ranching operations. Today I thought I’d share some of these terms with the Sweethearts and our readers. Enjoy!

Buckaroo: Derived from the Spanish "vaquero,” a cowboy from the Great Basin country of northern Nevada, southern Idaho, northeast California and southeastern Oregon.  Often they wear flat hats, chinks, and ride A-fork saddles with post horns and bucking rolls. Traditionally their gear displays lots of silver and is fancier than some other areas of the country.

Charro: Gentleman rider of Mexico. Charros often exhibit a very flashy style of riding and use ornate dress and gear. Jalisco and Guerrero are the main states in Mexico where the charro tradition originated.

Charreada: A gathering of charros combining skilled riding, roping, and bull tailing, somewhat similar to a rodeo in the United States.

Big Circle Riders: Cowboys start at a point designated by the cow boss, ride widely-separated, gather the cattle, and push them to the holding or rodear grounds where the cattle will be worked.

Cocinero: Spanish term for male cook or chuck wagon cook.
Chuck Wagon Cook: On the old time cattle drives, the cook was sometimes an aging cowboy hired for his ability to drive a wagon more than his cooking skills. He was in charge of the wagon and everything related to it. The cook was paid more than the other hands because the success of the camp and the drive depended greatly on him. A cowhand earned about a dollar a day and the cook made twice that. Ranch cooks today still command a great deal of respect and many expect a certain strict etiquette in their vicinity.

Hoodlum (or Little Mary): Cooks helper-chops wood, peels potatoes, does dishes, and other chores around the chuckwagon.

Cow Boss: In charge of the cattle operation on a ranch. They choose where the cowboys will ride, hire and fire cowboys, and answer to the general manager.

Cowman: A ranch owner who makes a living raising cattle.

Cow-Puncher: Also called “Buckaroo,” “Cow Poke,” “Waddie,” “Cowboy,” and in Spanish a "Vaquero". Terms for cowboy vary with the region. The term cow puncher or "puncher" is more commonly used in the southwest.
Drover: Term commonly used in the 1870s and 80s for a working cowboy engaged in trailing longhorns to market or a new range.

Escaramuza: Women participating in a charraeada as a drill team riding sidesaddle.

Gunsel: A person with limited knowledge of livestock and cowboy ways. Usually used as a derogatory term.

Gyp: A female dog - term used especially in the south.

Jigger: Second in command to the buckaroo boss. Often ropes the buckaroos' horses for the day.

Lead Riders: Two cowboys that ride on each side of the 'lead steers' in a trail herd. They push the cattle in the general direction they want the herd to move.

Drag Rider: Cowboy following the herd pushing the stragglers.

Night Hawk : Cowboy that constantly rides around the cattle herd at night.

Night Wrangler: A cowboy that herds and cares for the saddle horses during the night.

Peeler: A horse breaker

Point Rider: Cowboy who rides in front of a herd and provides something for the animals to follow.

Flank Rider: Cowboys riding along the sides of the herd keeping it bunched.

Forked: Adjective applied to a Cowboy that can really ride a bronc well. Pronounced fork-ed – like the name “Ed.”

Pogonip: Paiute word for “cloud,” referring to a dense winter fog containing frozen particles, formed in valleys in the western United States. Also called “white cloud,” “white death” or “death fog.” Formed when humidity is 100% and temperature falls below freezing(32° F.) The ice crystals will then settle onto surfaces, forming beautiful ice crystal sculptures. Beautiful but dangerous.

Range Boss: Manager of a cow outfit out on the range.

Ranahan: Top cowhand, sometimes shortened to "ranny."

Rep: A representative. In the old days, neighboring ranches would pasture in ranges without fences as we know them today. During roundup time, representatives from neighboring ranches would attend the roundup. A rep with his own string of horses would trail to the range and ride and work with the roundup crew. When the cattle were gathered, those with his ranch's brand would be cut out and the rep would trail them home along with his saddle and pack horses.

Rosin Jaw: Hired man that does the mechanical, irrigating, and feeding chores on a ranch—all the non-horseback work. He is one of the "ranch crew."

A horse or cattle thief.
Shaded-Up: Can be applied to cowboys, cattle, or horses when they are pulled into a shady spot to rest.

Shadow Riding:
A cowboy that rides along, admiring his own gear and his own shadow.

Swing Riders: C
owboys that keep the main body of the trail herd together and keep them moving.

Tail Riders: Cowboys that follow the trail herd and keep the cows and young calves moving. They are also referred to as “drag riders.”

A cowboy who stands beside the branding-fire at a round-up and makes a tally mark for each animal branded, ear-marked, and vaccinated, showing to whom it belongs. A tally-man can also count animals out of a gate and keep track of them.

A cowboy roper that ties the end of his rope to his saddle horn while roping horses or cattle. This is a roping technique used mainly in Texas.

Twister: A horse breaker.

Vaquero: Spanish term for a man who takes care of cattle. A Mexican cowboy. Vaquero is derived from the Spanish word "vacca" (cow).

Waddie: Another term for cowboy, or a hired man, in the western United States who tends cattle and performs many of his duties on horseback. The term “waddy” is an old term that no one seems to be able to actually put their finger on the exact origin. It is more common in the Midwest and Southwest.

Wagon: A chuck and a bedroll wagon goes out with the cowboys when they work cattle on the range for several months at a time, especially in the spring and fall.

Candy wagon: A vehicle that hauls the grub and supplies to line camps.

Wrangler: A livestock herder, especially of saddle horses.


  1. Great list of words.Thanks for sharing.

  2. I learned a few new colorful words. Thanks.

  3. Interesting post, Amber. Some of those I have never heard of before. I've printed this out, too. I think 'waddie' sounds like it comes from Australia. LOL And I've always thought jigger referred to a shotglass of scotch?? I love learning western slang. And the photo of the cowboy is verrrry nice. :) ~ Ashley

  4. Completely awesome list of terms to look back and use. Thanks for the hard work, Amber, and for sharing with us.

  5. Great accounting of terms. I know next to nothing about the proper 'horse' language and am saving this for reference. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Very interesting.I'd never heard of some of these. Cheryl writes about a Native American named "Stand Waddie." Maybe she will know the meaning.

    Night Hawk--I read a Western by this title. In that story, the Night Hawk was a kid--I think the lowest man on the totem pole were Night Hawks.

    Never knew, either, that cooks made twice what the cowboy did. But I can understand it. Remember, an Army runs on its stomach. A man must eat.

    Thanks for these--I enjoyed every one!

  7. Amber Liegh, I didn't know all of these terms, so thanks for posting them.

  8. Amber, a nice list! Good overall view of the language.

    Western slang was regional, just like it is now, so sometimes you can find good phrases by reading diaries written by ranchmen from your setting.

  9. Fun information! I'll be using this post as research for sure! Thanks for sharing it!

  10. I'd only heard of half of these - thank you for sharing! Coming across new ones every day I research.

  11. I'd heard "ranny" before but glad you cleared up where it came from. Loved the list, thanks for the review. :-)


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