in: Character, Knowledge of Men

Saddle Up! A Dictionary of Old-Time Cowboy Slang

Historical photo of a group of cowboys and covered wagons on a plain, with the text "Old-Time Cowboy Slang" overlaid at the top.

The cowboy is one of the great archetypes of American manliness. 

He embodies many of the virtues Americans prize, such as grit, freedom, and independence. The cowboy followed a code of honor that, rather than being set by an aristocracy, came from the ground up and worked itself out within a posse. 

While many of our ideas of cowboy life are a myth, the romantic ideal of it has had an outsized influence on American culture, including in language. 

Because the cowpuncher was typically uneducated, he often used slang to communicate with his horse-riding, steer-roping peers.

In 1936, American folklorist Ramon Adams published an ethnography called Cowboy Lingo that focused on the unique language of American cowboys. In it, he cataloged the colorful slang words used by cowboys in the American West from the 19th century to the early 20th.

According to Adams, cowboy slang is characterized by the use of picturesque metaphors. The cowboy drew from his everyday life to create phrases and words that could be used more broadly. For example, a cowboy might have noticed that when a bull gets angry, it starts aggressively pointing its horns at would-be targets. To tell a fellow cowpoke to quit looking for trouble, a cowboy might say to his compadre: “Pull in your horns!”

Below, we give you a sampling of common cowboy slang words. You might notice some of them sprinkled in a Western movie or novel, and you’ll even notice some that are still in use today.

Ace in the hole. A hideout or a hidden gun.

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

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

Addle-headed. Empty-headed, not smart.

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

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

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

Amputate your timber. Go away, run off.

Apple peeler. Pocket knife.

Apple pie order. In top shape, perfect order.

Attitudinize. To assume an affected attitude.

Bach (pronounced “batch”). For a man to keep house without a woman’s help.

Backdoor Trots. Diarrhea.

Ballyhoo. Sales talk, advertising, exaggeration.

Barber’s cat. Half-starved, sickly-looking person.

Barber’s clerk. A conceited, over-dressed fellow who tries to act like a “gentleman.”

Barkin’ at a knot. Doing something useless; wasting your time, trying something impossible.

Barrel boarder. A bum.

Between hay and grass. Neither man nor boy, half-grown.

Biggest toad in the puddle. The most important person in a group.

Biggity. Large, extravagant, grand, haughty.

Black-eyed susan. A six-gun.

Blue devils. Dispirited. “I have the blue devils today.”

Bone orchard. Cemetery.

Bosh. Nonsense. “It was absolute bosh what he said.”

Boss. The best, top. “The Alhambra Saloon sells the boss whiskey in town.”

Buckaroo. A cowboy, usually from the desert country of Oregon, Nevada, California, or Idaho.

Buckle to. Set about any task with energy and determination.

Calico queen. Prostitute.

California widow. A woman separated from her husband, but not divorced. (From when pioneer men went West, leaving their wives to follow later.)

Cash in. To die.

Catch a weasel asleep. Referring to something impossible or unlikely, usually used in regard to someone who is always alert and seldom or never caught off guard. 

Clodhopper. A rustic, a clown.

Cotton to. To take a liking to.

Cowboy up. Toughen up, get back on yer horse, don’t back down, don’t give up.

Dash. Euphemism for damn.

Dead-alive. Dull, inactive, moping.

Didn’t have a tail feather left. Broke.

Docity. Quick comprehension, usually used in a negative way. “He has no docity.”

Don’t care a continental. Don’t give a damn.

Dry gulch. To ambush someone, especially when the ambusher hides in a gully or gulch near a road and jumps the passersby.

Dude. Commonly, the term applied to an Easterner, or anyone in upscale town clothes, rather than plain range-riding or work clothes. 

Dull music. A term applied to anything tedious.

Eatin’ irons. Silverware.

Eventuate. To issue, come to an end, close, terminate.

Exfluncticate. To utterly destroy.

Fair to middlin’. Feeling pretty good.

Fandango. From the Spanish, a big party with lots of dancing and excitement.

Fat in the fire. To have one’s plans frustrated. “If I don’t get this job completed, the fat’s going to be in the fire.”

Fine as cream gravy. Very good, top-notch.

Fix one’s flint. To settle a matter.

Full chisel or full drive. At full speed, executed with everything you’ve got.

Get my/your back up. To get angry. “Don’t get your back up; he was only joking.”

Get the mitten. To be rejected by a lover. “Looks like Blossom gave poor Buck the mitten.”

Go boil your shirt. Take a hike, get lost, bug off.

Goney. A stupid fellow.

Gospel mill. A church.

Gull. A cheat, fraud, or trick. Also, refers to a stupid animal or person, one easily cheated.

Gully washer. A hard rain.

Hair in the butter. A delicate situation.

Hang up one’s fiddle. To give up. The opposite would be to “hang on to one’s fiddle.”

Hard row to hoe. A metaphor derived from hoeing corn, meaning a difficult matter or job to accomplish.

Hay seed. Derogatory term for a farmer, also called a hay shaker.

Heeled. To be armed with a gun. “He wanted to fight me, but I told him I was not heeled.”

Hitch in the giddy-up. Not feeling well, as in: “I’ve had a hitch in my giddy-up the last couple days.”

Hobble your lip. Shut up.

Hot as a whorehouse on nickel night. Damned hot.

Iron horse. A railroad train.

Keep that dry. Keep it secret.

Keep the pot a boiling. Keep it going.

Leap the book. An illegal or false marriage.

Lickfinger. To kiss ass. Also called “lick-spittle.”

Like bricks. Quickly, with energy.

Like a thoroughbred. Like a gentleman.

Lunger. Someone with tuberculosis.

Mail-order cowboy. This was a derogatory term used to chide tenderfoot, urban “cowboys” who arrived from the East all decked out in fancy but hardly practical Western garb.

Mormon tea. Liquor.

Mouth-bet. A gambling man who only gives verbal promises to pay.

Mush-head. A stupid, witless fellow.

Old stager. One well initiated in anything.

On one’s own hook. On one’s own account, for himself. “He is doing business on his own hook.”

Paintin’ his nose. Getting drunk.

Peckish. Hungry.

Petticoat pensioner. A man who lives on a prostitute’s earnings. Also called a Sunday-man.

Piece of pudding. A piece of luck, a welcome change.

Poppet. Term of endearment. “Come along, poppet.”

Pop your corn.  Say what you have to say; speak out.

Porch percher. A town loafer.

Pull in your horns. Back off, quit looking for trouble.

Rib. Wife.

Ride for the brand. To be loyal to the ranch and rancher that pays a cowboy.

Sand. Guts; courage; toughness. “You got sand, that’s fer shore.”

Saphead. Blockhead, a stupid fellow.

Savage as a meat axe. Extremely savage.

Sawbones. Surgeon.

Schruncher. One who eats greedily.

Set her cap for him. To direct her attentions to him, to endeavor to win his affections.

Shoot the crow. Obtain a drink in a saloon and leave without paying.

Skin a razor. To drive a hard bargain.

Slipe. A distance. “I’ve got a long slipe to go.”

Sodbuster. Farmer.

Sold his saddle. Disgraced.

Someone to ride the river with. A person to be counted on; reliable; got it where it counts.

Sonofabitch stew. A cowboy concoction that contained cow heart, testicles, tongue, liver, and marrow gut. 

Spooney. A stupid or silly fellow, also a disgusting drunk.

Sure as a gun. Absolutely certain.

Take the starch out. Extinguish one’s conceit, widely applied to weakening, refuting, or deterioration.

Ten-cent man. A small, narrow-minded, trifling man.

Texas cakewalk. A hanging.

Three ways from Sunday. Moving quickly; high-tailing it out of there.

Tin-horn lot. A term used to express contempt towards a small-minded or mean fellow.

Tin. A slang word for money. ‘Kelter,’ ‘dimes,’ ‘dough,’ rocks,’ and many other words are used in the same manner.

Twisting the tiger’s tail. Playing Faro or poker. Also referred to as “bucking the tiger.”

Treed. In difficulty, cornered, unable to do anything.

Wheel-horse. An intimate friend, one’s right hand man.

Definitions taken from Legends of America’s dictionary of Western slang. Used with permission. 

Related Posts