The Old West

The popular view of the American Old West has been seriously contaminated by 19th  Century adventure novels and 20th Century movies.  I've included some of these words that exist only in fiction because most gamers are simulating movies rather than reality anyway. 

I've also added a pronunciation guide to certain non-English words that were commonly mispronounced by Americans. Citizens of the UK may consider that Americans mispronounce all words in all languages, but I 'm staying away from that debate. And speaking of the UK, check the British list for some words that might be common to both sides of the Atlantic.

When a date is shown, it refers to when that word began to be used in English. For example, there are many Spanish words relating to ranching that only became common in English after the Mexican-American War or during the big cattle drives after the American Civil War. Any characters living in the Southwest would likely be familiar with such words long before the rest of the US.

adobe Bricks made of sun-dried dirt, sometimes with straw added  [Spanish, from Arabic at-tub the brick, from Coptic tobe brick [1748]
armadillo A burrowing mammal found from the southern U.S. to Argentina and having the body and head encased in an armor of small bony plates (Spanish, from diminutive of armado armed one)[1577]
arroyo A water-carved gully or channel (Spanish [1843])
bandana A large colorful handkerchief often worn around the neck or pulled up over the nose (to keep dust out)
beeves Cattle meant for food (Old French buef ox, beef, from Latin bov-, bos, head of cattle)
bobcat The North American lynx (Lynx rufus). The "bob" refers to the cat's stubby tail. [1888]
bois d'arc (BO-dark)-- Osage orange, a thorny American tree of the mulberry family with shiny oval leaves and hard bright-orange wood; also used for its yellowish green warty-looking fruit (American French, literally, bow wood)
biscuit A small lump of bread, like a deformed roll, made from dough that has been rolled and then cut or else dropped from a spoon. The American usage is inaccurate since "biscuit" means "twice-cooked". What the British correctly refer to as a biscuit is called a "cracker" in the US.
black widow spider A venomous New World spider (Latrodectus mactans). The female is shiny black with an hourglass-shaped red mark on the underside of her abdomen. Only the female is dangerous to humans. [1915]
blue norther A strong cold front that moves in suddenly, possibly dropping the temperature as much as 50 degrees F. in only a few hours. The name comes from the color of the northern sky as the storm approaches. [1820]
bronco Rough or wild (Mexican Spanish [1850], from Spanish)
brown recluse spider A venomous spider (Loxosceles reclusa) of the Americas, found mostly in the South and Southwest in the U.S. It has a violin-shaped mark on the cephalothorax and so has the nickname "fiddleback spider". It produces a dangerous cytotoxin, often producing a large circle of dead tissue radiating from its bite. 
buckeroo A cowboy. Someone who works with cattle. (from a badly mispronounced version of the Spanish vaquero)
Bull Durham A popular brand of American tobacco
bunkhouse Crude sleeping quarters for ranch hands [1876]
bushwhack Ambush  [1866]
bushwhacker Someone who lies in wait to shoot a victim from ambush. The safest method of robbing.
butte (byoot) An isolated hill  with steep sides usually having a smaller top than a mesa (French [1805], knoll, from Middle French)
buttonhead Young bull with horns just beginning to show.
caballero Horseman. Used much as in polite English for "gentleman "  (Spanish, from Late Latin caballarius hostler)
casa Small house (Spanish from Latin, cottage [1844])
catamount Any of various wild American cats such as the cougar or the lynx (short for cat-a-mountain) [1664]
chaps Leather leggings worn over trousers to protect mounted cattle workers from the many thorny plants in the Southwest (Mexican Spanish chaparreras [1844])
chuck Food (English dialect chuck lump)
chuck wagon Wagon that carried food and the equipment to cook it
cinch Leather strap that goes around a horse's body to hold a saddle or a pack (Spanish cincha, from Latin cingula girdle [1859])
circuit judge A judge who traveled from town to town to set up temporary court. Many places in the American west were thinly populated, with large distances between towns. It was easier for the judge to travel than it was for farmers or ranchers to be away from their work for several weeks to go to the nearest court.
circuit rider A preacher who traveled from town to town to set up temporary church. Many places in the American west were thinly populated, with large distances between towns. It was easier for the preacher to travel than it was for farmers or ranchers to be away from their work for several days or weeks to be married or whatever. Many circuit riders were Baptists or  Methodists. [1837]
coal oil Kerosene. Used as a lamp or stove fuel and both internally and externally as a treatment for many diseases [1858]
copperhead Pit viper, found in woody areas east of the Rockies.
coral snake Red, black, and yellow snake that produces a neurotoxin in its saliva. It has no fangs so it must chew through skin with its small teeth.  
corn pone Corn meal fried in fat or sometimes baked [1859]
cottoneye A human or animal with cataracts (milky covering over eye) caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet light.
cottonmouth Water Moccasin. A pit viper, called cottonmouth because of its white mouth in contrast to it's very dark, black body. Lives near water east of the Rockies. It swims and is more aggressive than most snakes
cottonwood tree Poplars having seeds with cottony hairs. The wood is also very lightweight, thus the name
cowpuncher Cowboy, also cowpoke [1870s]
coyote (Pronounced KY-yote by cowboys and ko-YO-teh by Spanish speakers) A wily, wild dog closely related to but smaller than a wolf (Mexican Spanish, from Nahuatl coyotl)
dally To wrap a lariat around the saddle horn for support during roping [Spanish dar la vuelta, to give a turn]
dengue fever An infectious virus transmitted by mosquitoes in the American tropics. Produces headache, severe joint pain, and rash. Also called breakbone fever. (American Spanish [1828])
dogie A calf whose mother has abandoned it [1888]
don A Spanish nobleman or gentleman or a person of importance, used with the man's first name as in Don Fernando (Spanish, from Latin dominus master [1523])
doughnut A ring of cake dough fried in fat
dry goods Cloth, ready-to-wear clothing, etc., as opposed to hardware and groceries
dude A dandy, a fop,  a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range  (origin unknown [1883])
duenna An elderly woman who served as governess and companion to a young lady in a wealthy Spanish or  Mexican family (Spanish dueña, from Latin domina, mistress [1623])
dugout A shelter dug in the ground or into the side of a cliff and often roofed with sod. These were common on the Plains due to the lack of timber to build anything else. [1819]
fiesta A saint's day celebrated in Spain and Latin America with processions and dances. Therefore, any party. (Spanish, from Latin festa [1844])
foot-pad A robber who steals from pedestrians, as in a town or city.
gelding A castrated male horse.
gila monster A desert-dwelling large orange and black venomous lizard. Note that gila monsters do not live east of the Rockies (Texas, for example). They have a powerful bite and hold on tenaciously,  The poison is in their saliva. They have enlarged, grooved teeth in their lower jaw by which the poison enters the victim. About the only way a person can be bitten is to stick their hand into a hole where a gila monster is hiding. (named for the Gila River in Arizona [1877])
gobs A large amount -- usually used in plural as in "gobs of biscuits" or "gobs of bullets" (Middle English gobbe, from Middle French gobe large piece of food)
gray backs Lice
grub-line riding Out-of-work cowboys in the off-season (winter) wandering from ranch to ranch doing odd jobs for food and a place to spend the night.
gully washer Heavy rain, one that would cause flash flooding to "wash out" a gully.
gunslinger A made-up word from Western fiction [1928]
hacienda A large estate or ranch; the main building on such (Spanish, from Old Spanish facienda, from Latin, literally, things to be done [1772])
hackamore A bitless bridle that controls a horse by pressure on its nose and jaw  ( from Spanish jáquima bridle [1850])
hombre Man (Spanish, from Latin homin-, homo [1846])
hornswoggle The way wild cattle dodge being roped or can shake a rope loose. Therefore, to trick or fool someone. 
jalapeño (Pronounced hah-lah-PEN-yo). A small plump dark-green Mexican hot pepper commonly used as a spice in the Southwest.  (Mexican Spanish, adjective, from Jalapa )
lariat A light rope of hemp or leather, used with a running noose to catch livestock (American Spanish la reata the lasso, from Spanish reatar to tie again [1832]
line-camps Outposts scattered around the boundaries of a ranch, usually a one-room shack or a dugout
loblolly A muddy puddle (probably from English dialect lob to boil + obsolete English dialect lolly broth, gruel)
loco Crazy (Mexican Spanish [1844])
locoweed Any of several plants of western North America that cause locoism in livestock [1879]
maverick Unbranded cattle; especially a motherless calf (from Samuel A. Maverick  who did not brand his calves [1867])
mesa An isolated flat-topped hill (Spanish, literally, table, from Latin mensa [1759 ])
mescal A colorless Mexican liquor distilled from the central leaves of maguey plants (American Spanish mezcal or mescal, from Nahuatl mexcalli [1702])
mesquite A short, spiny weed tree of the southwestern U.S. that often forms extensive thickets and has large bean pods that can be eaten by livestock or humans.
mosshorn Older steer or bull.
muley A hornless cow (Celtic, related to Gaelic maol bald, hornless and Welsh moel)
mustang The small hardy horses of the western plains directly descended from horses brought in by Spaniards (Mexican Spanish mestengo, stray [1808])
nester A squatter who settled on government land to farm (someone who builds a nest [1880])
on the dodge Wanted by police
paint Horse with irregular patches of white.
piebald Horse of many different colors, especially one spotted or blotched with black and white [1594]
pinto Horse with patches of white and another color (American Spanish, from pinto spotted [1860])
play possum To pretend to be dead. Based on the behavior of the American opossum, a marsupial that appears to faint when threatened. 
polecat Ferret or skunk (Middle English polcat, probably from  its preying on poultry)
prairie dog Gregarious burrowing rodents of central and western U.S. plains that usually live in extensive colonies. In movies, horses often break their legs in prairie dog holes.
pueblo An Indian or Mexican village of the southwestern U.S. (Spanish, village, literally, people, from Latin populus [1808])
pulque A Mexican alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the agave cactus (Mexican Spanish [1693])
quirt Riding whip with a short handle and a rawhide lash (Mexican Spanish cuarta [1845])
rattlesnake The most widespread of American pit vipers. Rattlesnake venom is mostly a hemotoxin that causes rapid swelling of the affected area resulting in a great deal of pain. Usually human victims survive even without treatment, although there may be extensive tissue damage. Note: Rattlesnakes do not always give warning before striking.
remuda An outfit's collection of riding horses (American Spanish, relay of horses (Spanish, exchange, from remudar [1892])
road agent A robber who preyed on stage routes in between towns
rodeo Roundup, later a performance of cowboy skills (Spanish, from rodear to surround [1834])
sage brush A type of shrub that smells similar to sage and once covered large areas of alkaline plains in the western U.S. [1850]
señor A title equivalent to Mister in English (Spanish señor, from Medieval Latin senior superior, lord [1622])
señora A married woman in Spanish-speaking lands, equivalent to Mrs. (Spanish, feminine form of señor [1579])
señorita An unmarried woman in Spanish-speaking lands, equivalent to Miss in English (Spanish diminutive of señora [1822])
shindig A cowboy dance or ball (probably alteration of shindy [1842])
snuffy quick to become annoyed or take offense (full of snuff?)
sombrero A Mexican high-crowned hat of felt or straw with a very wide brim (Spanish, from sombra shade [1599])
steers Castrated male cattle.
stetson Originally a trademarked hat  name, but later used generically for any cowboy hat.
string A cowboy's reserve horses used for remounts
taco Food wrapped inside a tortilla. Typically, beans, beef, or fried eggs.  
tamale A tube of cornmeal dough filled with ground meat or beans and usually seasoned with chili, wrapped in corn husks and steamed (Mexican Spanish tamale,  from Nahuatl tamalli steamed cornmeal dough [1854])
tenderfoot A person who is new to a job, one who hasn't yet developed calluses
tequila A Mexican liquor distilled from pulque (Spanish, from Tequila, town in Jalisco state, Mexico [1849])
tortilla A round thin cake of unleavened cornmeal or wheat flour bread.  (American Spanish, diminutive of torta cake, from Late Latin, round loaf of bread)
tumbleweed A plant, such as Russian thistle, that dries and hardens in the autumn and then breaks away from its roots  to be blown about by the wind like a rolling ball. [1887] Often seen in movies rolling down an empty street.
vaquero A Mexican cowboy, someone who works with cattle (Spanish, vaca cow [1826])
vittles Victuals, food for humans (alteration of Middle English vitaille, from Middle French, from Late Latin victualia, plural, provisions, victuals, from neuter plural of victualis of nourishment, from Latin victus nourishment, way of living, from vivere to live)
waddy A temporary hand hired when a ranch was short of help, or, a cowboy in general [1897]
yellow jacket A type of wasp that lives in large colonies. Nests are a dried paper-like gray substance that hang in trees and various openings and can grow to several feet in diameter. Their sting is very painful.
yucca Any of a genus (Yucca) of the agave family that live chiefly in warm dry areas of western North America. They have very long rigid leaves, usually with sharp points on the tip, and have large white blossoms when in bloom. Fiber from the leaves was used by Indians to make clothing, sandals, etc. [1664]

Back to Glossary Main Page
Index A-M
Index N-Z

Arabic
British Military Terms and Soldier Slang
China and the Far East
East Africa
French North Africa
India and the Northwest Frontier
South Africa
 

1