Sunday, July 12, 2015

Wild West Words: Ladies' Night

In a continuing quest to avoid  anachronisms in western fiction, here are some of the more colorful terms residents of the 19th Century American west applied to women. (Terms related to lawbreakers and lawbreaking are here; to food and drink, here.)

Women with "safety bicycles," 1890s
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; c. 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 shortened form of acute, the word meant “clever.”

Drag: women’s clothing worn by a man. 1870s theater slang from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor.

A working girl of the late 1800s
Fancy woman: high-dollar whore or a kept woman; possibly from the 1751 use of "fancy" to mean "ornamental."

Fast trick: loose woman. Of unknown origin, but possibly related to the 15th Century use of the noun "trick" to mean "trifles," or pretty things with little value. By 1915, "trick" had come to mean a prostitute's client.

Feathered out: dressed up.

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

Frump, frumpy: cross, unstylish person; sour-looking, unfashionable. The noun arose c. 1817, possibly imitative of a derisive snort. The adverb followed c. 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. She divorced him.
Grass widow: divorcee

Gyp: female dog; more polite form of “bitch.” American slang from about 1840 as a shortened form of gypsy, presumably in reference to stray dogs' wandering nature. By 1889, gyp's meaning had shifted to "cheat or swindle," also based on gypsies' perceived behavior.

High-strung: temperamental, excitable, nervous; c. 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 by volatile emotions and overly dramatic 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 to an asylum. In 1866, clitoridectomy was proposed as a cure.

Lightskirt: woman of questionable virtue. American slang. Date unknown, but most likely from the notion loose women's skirts lay over fewer petticoats than traditional skirts of the time and therefor were easier to raise.

Dolly Adams, exotic dancer
in San Francisco, 1890s
Painted lady: any woman who wore obvious makeup, primarily entertainers and prostitutes. From the 1650s use of "paint" to mean makeup or rouge.

Scarlet woman, scarlet lady: prostitute. From the 13th Century use of scarlet to mean "red with shame."

Soiled dove: prostitute; generally considered the kindest of such terms. Most likely 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. Arose latter half of the 19th Century as a combination of "sporting" (early 1600s for "playful") and "house."

Sporting ladies, sporting women: prostitutes. Shortening and modification of 1640s "lady of pleasure" by substitution of early 1600s "sporting" (playful). Arose in America during the latter half of the 19th Century in conjunction with "sporting house."

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


  1. This is a great and helpful post. Thanks so much for posting!


    1. You're welcome, Penny! I'm fascinated by etymology. Can you tell? :-D

  2. Thank you, Kathleen. I hate anachronisms in books and I strive to avoid them.

    1. Me too, Caroline -- although readers sometimes don't cotton to any word if they think it sounds "too new" to have been used in the Old West. **sigh**

  3. It amazes me that you can put together a blog this informative at the last minute. I am not that smart.
    I liked discovering when and why these terms came about. Speaking of terms, when I see the word "etymology", my medical mind translates it to epidemiology (science of epidemic disease). Weirdness. This was fun! Thanks Kathleen.

    1. Sarah, I never think you're weird. A bit unbalanced, maybe, but never weird. ;-)

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post! :-)

  4. Your gift for finding and sharing this information is invaluable. Thank you and readers should also thank you for keeping the rest of us on the 'straight and narrow'. (Grin)

    Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. HA! If anyone can keep you on the "straight and narrow," you ol' owlhoot, I want their secret! :-D

  5. Fun in formation, Kathleen. There were a couple I'd not heard of.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Paty! I'm always finding words that are either older or younger than I thought they were. "Drag" surprised the heck out of me. :-D

  6. Well...I don't think I'm any of these but I do love the explanations of the terms.
    Two things--Frump. In the 80's as I taught in a high school--aka a Private Military Boarding School--we teachers would go on a marathon shopping trip to Austin to buy new clothes to "change our image." Okay, we never...not any of the six of us...every changed our image. One thing all of us wore during those years, whether with skirts or pants were corduroy blazers. Mine was always blue...others wore khaki or black or brown, and our art teacher...the only one who knew how to dress prettily and change her look each year, called our blazers "Frump Coats.."
    And...those women on the bicycles...could they really ride a bicycle with all that frou-frou clothing.?

  7. I love reading old terms, familiar or not. One of my biggest problems is using the same word over in a book. Every book seems to have one of those--always a different word for each story.

    Celia, I can't imagine any jacket looking like a "Frump Coat" on you!

    1. Why, thank you. You are so sweet. And your biggest problem about using the same word over and over in a book? I'm the world's worst. I one of my early book, the editors told me I overused Well at the beginning of a statement. I counted. I did it 97 times. How embarrassing.

  8. Kathleen, as others have said, now we have a few more terms so as not to over use certain words in our writing. Reading the various names and terms I have to say, they nailed most of them and were definitely colorful. You post was a fun read and more than helpful. Thanks. Of course I'm still squirming in my chair when I think of the treatment for hysteria. You can certainly tell men were the doctors at the time that one came down the line. Ouch!


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.