Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Wild West Words: That's Downright Insultin'

Insults and pejoratives have been around since man’s first spoken word. Below are some that were popular in the 19th-century American west. (Terms for food are here, women here, and outlaws here.)

Bigmouth: a person who talks too much, usually about something another doesn’t want discussed. American English, c. 1889.

Battle of Franklin (Tenn.) Nov. 30, 1864
(courtesy Library of Congress)
Bluebelly: from the early 1800s in the U.S. South, a derogatory term for a northerner; a Yankee. From about 1850, a pretentious, opinionated person. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), any Union sympathizer, especially a Union soldier. Union soldiers also were called blueskins, after the color of their uniforms.

Bottom-feeder: a reviled person, especially someone who uses a position of authority to abuse others; a lowlife. Originally used to describe fishes, the word became American slang c. 1866.

Dude: a fastidious man; fop or clotheshorse. The term originated in New York City c. 1880-1885; antecedents uncertain. Westerners picked up the word as derisive slang for any city dweller out of his element on the rough frontier. Cowboys used the phrase “duded up” to mean “dressed up.” Contemporary usage of “dude” as a minor term of endearment or indication of spiritual kinship arose in California’s surfer culture during the latter half of the 20th century.

Fiddleheaded: inane; lacking good sense; “possessing a head as hollow as a fiddle.” Arose c. 1854; American slang.

Grass-bellied: disparaging term for the prosperous (especially those whose prosperity had gone to their waist); originally applied to cattle whose stomachs were dangerously distended due to eating too much green grass. The word arose prior to 1897, when it appeared in Owen Wister’s A Journey in Search of Christmas.

Confederate soldier re-enactors charge into battle during
150th anniversary of Battle of Gettysburg July 6, 2013
(courtesy E.J. Hersom, U.S. Department of Defense)
Grayback: Confederate soldier, based on the color of their coats. Arose during the American Civil War.

Greaser: derogatory term for a Hispanic of the lower classes. Arose in Texas before 1836.

Greenhorn: novice, neophyte, or newcomer; pejorative in the American west from at least 1885. In the mid-15th century the word meant any young horned animal; by the 17th century, it had been applied to new military recruits.

Heeler: unscrupulous political lackey. The U.S. slang meaning dates to about 1877, no doubt from the image of a dog following its master’s heels. The word “heel” took on that very meaning in 1810. Previously (dating to the 1660s), “heeler” described a person who attached heels to shoes.

Hellion: disorderly, troublesome, rowdy, or mischievous. Arose mid-1800s in the U.S. from Scottish and Northern English hallion, meaning “worthless fellow.” Americans may have changed the A to an E because “hell seemed appropriate, although the shift could as easily represent a simple mispronunciation that stuck.

"An East-Side Politician"
(Frederic Remington, 1894)
High-binder: swindler, confidence man, cheat (especially of the political variety). Americanism; arose 1800-10.

High yellow: offensive term for light-skinned person of mixed white and black ancestry. Arose about 1808 in the southern U.S. The term and the notion are reflected in popular songs of the mid-1800s, including the original lyrics for “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Hustler: in 1825, a thief, especially one who roughed up his victims. By 1884, meaning had shifted to “energetic worker.” The sense “prostitute” arose c. 1924.

Lead-footed: slow and/or awkward. Arose as American slang c. 1896. By the late 1940s, thanks to the burgeoning interstate highway system in the U.S., the term had taken on the opposite meaning — “fast” — as a reference to a heavy foot on a vehicle’s accelerator.

Loco: Borrowed from Spanish about 1844, the word has the same meaning in both languages: “insane.” “Loco-weed,” meaning a species of plants that make cattle behave strangely, arose about 1877.

Loony: short for lunatic; possibly also influenced by the loon bird, known for its wild cry. American English. The adjective appeared in 1853; the noun followed in 1884. “Loony bin,” slang for insane asylum, arose 1919.

Lunk: slow-witted person. Americanism; first documented appearance was in Harper’s Weekly, May 1867. Probably a shortened form of lunkhead, which arose in the U.S. about 1852.

Alexander W. Monroe, prominent Virginia lawyer
and politician,1875.(courtesy West Virginia
Division of Culture and History)
Mouthpiece: from 1805, one who speaks on behalf of others. The word first became tied to lawyers — especially of the slimy variety — in 1857.

Mudsill: unflattering Confederate term for a Yankee. In the 1680s, the word meant “lowest sill of a house.” In March 1858, it entered American politics when James M. Hammond of South Carolina used the term derogatorily during a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Yankees embraced the term as a way of flipping Rebs the proverbial bird.

Nuts: mentally unbalanced; crazy in a negative way. From 1846, based on an earlier (1785) expression “be nuts upon” (to be very fond of), which itself arose from the use of “nuts” for “any source of pleasure” (c. 1610). Oddly, “nut” also became a metaphorical term for “head” about 1846, probably arising from the use of “nuts” to describe a mental state. “Off one’s nut” as a slang synonym for insane arose c. 1860. The adjective nutty, i.e. crazy, appeared about 1898; nut as a substitute for “crazy person” didn’t arrive until 1903. (The related British term “nutter,” meaning insane person, first appeared in print 1958.)

Panhandle: to beg. Americanism c. 1849 as a derogatory comparison of a beggar’s outstretched hand to a pan’s handle. The noun panhandler followed in 1893.

Rawheel: newcomer; an inexperienced person. Exactly when the term arose is uncertain, but diaries indicate it was in use in California’s mining districts by 1849.

Redneck: uncouth hick. First documented use 1830. Originally applied to Scottish immigrants who wore red neck scarves during the American Colonial period, the word shifted meaning as it traveled west, possibly in reference to the notion farmers’ necks became sunburned because they looked down as they worked in their fields, leaving the backs of their necks exposed.

Secesh: short for secessionist. First recorded 1860 as a pejorative for Confederates during the American Civil War.

Sidewinder: dangerously cunning or devious person. Arose American west c. 1875 as a reference to some species of rattlesnakes’ “peculiar lateral movement.”

Son of a gun: politer version of the epithet “son of a bitch,” indicating extreme contempt. It’s unknown when the American figurative connotation arose, but the literal meaning appeared 1705-15 among the British navy, during a period when officers’ wives accompanied them to sea. Babies sometimes literally were born in the shadow of a gun carriage.

"The Squatters" by George Caleb Bingham, 1850
(courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston )
Squatter: settler who attempts to settle land belonging to someone else. Arose in Britain in 1788 as a reference to paupers occupying vacant buildings; first recorded use in the American west 1880.

Tenderfoot: newcomer; inexperienced person. Arose c. 1866 among miners, apparently in reference to an outsider’s need to “toughen his feet” in order to walk among rocks and stones where mining typically took place. Tender-footed, originally said of horses, leapt to humans in 1854 as a description of awkwardness or timidity.

young, presumptuous and/or impertinent person. The term arose in England c. 1665-1675, possibly as a variant of the much older (and obscure) “snippersnapper.” Modern Americans have Hollywood westerns to thank for inexorably associating the term with cranky elders in the Old West: The word was virtually unused in America prior to the popularity of western “talkies.”

Windbag: person who talks too much, especially in a self-aggrandizing way. First appearance in print 1827. Originally (late-15th C.) “bellows for an organ.”

Yellow-belly: from 1842, a Texian term for Mexican soldiers. Origin obscure, but possibly from traditional association of yellow with treachery or the yellow sashes that were part of a soldado’s uniform. Yellow became slang for “cowardly” c. 1856, but yellow-belly didn’t become synonymous with coward until 1924.

Yellow dog: contemptible person. First recorded use 1881, based on the earlier meaning “mongrel” (c. 1770).

Most of my stories are seasoned with a liberal dose of Wild West Words. Apparently readers and other authors find the vocabulary at least a little charming. In June, The Second-Best Ranger in Texas received Western Fictioneers’ 2014 Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. I’m downright proud of that story. (The title is linked to the the story’s page on Amazon. If you’re in the market for a short western historical romance, I hope you’ll give The Second-Best Ranger a try. At 99 cents it’s a bargain, if I do say so myself.)

You can read an excerpt on my website. The video trailer is right here:

A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats. Visit her virtual home on the range at


  1. Kathleen what a wonderful post to begin with, and absolutely one to bookmark and come back to! I laughed out loud because I actually "found" mudsill recently, and used it in my upcoming Christmas story. Hugs to you...congrats on the book...gonna watch the trailer now. xo

    1. You used mudsill? Good on ya! I'm looking forward to your Christmas story. You put a lot of heart into every one of your stories, but the Christmas stories are especially full of love and forgiveness.

      BIG HUGS, dear friend!

  2. Shoulda watched it before I hit the first comment LOL. Awesome video. And I am always intrigued by stories with nuns as heroines...lots of years teaching in Catholic schools and got a nun for a dear friend LOL. Congratulations as well on the Peacemaker. Way to go, girl. xoxo

    1. Thank you for the congratulations and for your kind words about the video. I'm just a tad proud of THE SECOND-BEST RANGER IN TEXAS. :-)

      I worried Catholic readers might find all kinds of holes in the way I presented the heroine and her faith (I was raised Baptist), but so far, so good. Of course, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, a very real, very inspiring organization of women religious who got their start in Galveston, Texas, in 1866 and now perform works of faith and love all over the world. I admire them tremendously.

  3. Everything you do is brilliant, Miss K. The story is wonderful, and I do love the video. Very clever. I made one once and it took 3 months to do it. It's still on UTube.
    I'd heard of and knew the meanings of just about all of these except Heeler and Mudsill. And thanks for the others links, too. Oh, yes, and more congratulations on the Peacemaker award. I feel I'm in fine company.....watching from the sidelines, of course.

    1. Thank you, Celia. :-)

      You know, awards are nice. They do make a body proud of herself, which can be more hindrance than help. ;-) The bigger joy for me is reading the kind of story I'm sad to see end. Yours are that way. I'm almost afraid to read your stories, because I know I won't want to turn them loose.

      You aren't watching from the sidelines. Trust me. :-)

  4. Cuerno Verde was the name of a young Indian brave who led his people in raids on the Spanish in the late 1790's in what is now New Mexico and Southern Colorado. He was pursued by General (later Governor) deAnza and killed in what became known as the GreenHorn Mountains. I'll have to post the story one day.

    I do love your word posts. Thanks Doris/Angela

    1. You'd think by the time they'd grown into mountains those GreenHorn hills would've gotten past the novice stage, wouldn't you? ;-)

      Doris, I hope you WILL post something about that episode. I'd love to read it. :-)

  5. Love the post, Kathleen. you reminded me of a term I'd forgotten--fiddleheaded. Fits perfectly in the book I'm writing now. Thanks.

    1. You're welcome! Is this new book part of one of your series? When will it be out?

  6. I especially love it when an 1870s issue of The Owyhee Avalanche uses terms that weren't in use until the 20th Century. I guess they were very, very clever. :)

    Whippersnapper stunned me a bit. If it was used in England, then why did people forget that word when they moved to the US? And did the Australians and Canadians forget it, too?

    1. You've found some of these words in old Avalanche issues? How cool is that! We need to correct the cads who are spreading malicious gossip about when the words came into being. (No names mentioned, of course. ;-) ) Seriously, though, I'd love to know which words so I can take them off my lists or correct the dates. I get really embarrassed when stuff like that happens.

      Whippersnapper stunned me, too. Sometimes words and phrases fall out of fashion, only to make a reappearance at odd times when people stumble over them and find them fun for one reason or another. (Let's hope we don't see a resurgence of bell-bottom leisure suits.) I suppose that could be what happened with whippersnapper: Someone in Hollywood tripped over it somewhere, thought the word memorable, and inserted it in a script. It's also possible there's simply no documentation of the word's use prior to the days of the first talkies, but people still spoke it, at least in parts of the country.

      Trail Boss, you know how dangerous it is to send me chasing rabbits. Dangit!

  7. Some of these I knew, but for the ones I didn't, thank you. Now I have some new words to use when I go insultin' folks.

    1. The problem with you insultin' someone, Sarah, is that you do it in such a sweet way, they don't feel insulted. ;-)

  8. Thanks, Kathleen. Recognized many terms but some were new to me. Loved them! Congratulations on your book receiving the award from Western Fictioneers. Enjoyed the trailer, too!


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