English as She is Recognized Elsewhere
How Some of the Quaint Slang Expressions of the Present Day Originated. Terms in Daily Use, What They Mean and How They are Applied. Peculiar Words Interwoven in the National Web by Reason of Immigration.
By Agnes Deans Cameron in the Pacific Monthly Magazine
“Phrases such as camps may teach, Sabre-cuts of Saxon speech.”
THE representatives of so many different nationalities landing in America in hordes vaster, than those of the barbarians who from the north crossed the Alps into Italy, have accepted the Anglo-Saxon with a celerity and avidity which makes almost a complete reversal of the confusion of tongues. And incidentally every immigrant has tended to influence the language of the country of his adoption, and peculiar strains are thus daily being interwoven with the national web.
It is not without hesitation that I have ventured to explore for only a little way this Dark Continent of the World of Words, for there are no unmistakable ear-marks which mark off and separate from respectable English the vagrant words of slang this vast and motley crowd of heterodox words and phrases. Of a verity the borderland between slang and the King’s English is an ill-defined territory, a terra incognito.
In traversing the prairies “for which the speech of England has no name,” one finds in the language permanent footprints of Spaniard, Mexican, Indian-Cree and French-Canadian. And they are beautiful words. The Spanish mesa is a high plain or tableland, and a mulada is a drove of mules—then happens along the irreverent American and hails the driver of the mulada as “Hi, there, you blamed mule-skinner!” c A muskeg is Northwest for a marsh or swamp.
A coulee is a dried-up creek or ravine, in the West,' in Mexico and California it is an arroyo; Hawaiians call it the perilous pali, and in Arabia it is a wady. A motte is the Texan term for a clump of trees in a prairie, really an island of trees ; while to the clusters of scrub-oak in the poor soil of the prairies is given the suggestive term, oak-barrens.
A cargador is the man who has charge of a pack-team, sometimes he is the patron.
A pipe among the voyageurs means two leagues, i.e., the time to smoke one pipeful of tobacco—and this is no pipe-dream.
In urban usage a pointer is a valuable hint; in the language of the plains, the pointer is the herdsman who rides at the head of a straggling herd of cattle on the march, a sort of Cowboy John the Baptist. He has to be as pop-eyed as a lightnin’bug, keep hisself well-posted and put on no curleycues.
The pointer is a proper-looking man, he can hug the pigskin for twenty-four hours and chirk-up and buck-up bright and sassy the first bar he comes to. “Wot’ll you hev?” says the bar-keep. “The quick and the dead,” sez he, “an’ give us more of the quick and less of the dead.” (Brandy and Apollinaris.) He takes one sockdolager after the other and goes on a rip-roarin’ time. ’Bout ten o’clock he’s pizen-full and spiffin’ fire. He’s in charge of the town, MustangWillie. Hear him roar: “I’m your hootin’ hyena of the hills, and your patent old he-hair lifter of the perraries, I’m your rip-roarin’ raccoon of the mountains, yer Sitting Bully boy with the glass-eye, and your goldurned and double-fisted son of an Injun—I’m the high-pressure, ironjawed, pneumatic-tired, double-backaction, twin-screw terror of the trail —you hear my horn !” When he has a bun on, Mustang don't give a whoop for any coyote on the range. He’s a swift lay-out. Jim’s mighty picayunish with his pennies, and a pernickety pesky kind of critter if you come agin him slantendicularly. He’s an authority on the peanut politics of his precinct—and jaw? Why Jim’d jaw the leg oflf’n an iron pot; he’s no great shakes on his think-tank, but he’s a Molly-cotton-' tail to talk; he knows every plank ofv the President’s platform. By the way, this use of the word plank to designate one of the principles of which a political platform is constructed antedates the history of Americanisms. It has no less an authority than Lord Bacon, who speaks forcefully of “the Exemplar or Platform of God.” 9 P.M.—Bellingham Brandy Breeze. 10 P.M.—Steilacoom Shandy Gaff. A rural school trustee speaks Of the new teacher, “I’m dod-blasted if I dan read his hand-write, but I guess he can handle boys all right.” While we’re talking about compounds, it might be well to mention that a blue-stocking has necessarily no connection with a black-leg. When the President went forth to kill, a mighty hunter, every paper in the land heralded that glad news that '“Teddy shot a bob-cat.” A buck-saw is the saw that you use with a sawbuck. A cant-hook is a hook attached to a lumberman's peavy, a strong iron-bound lever of wood used to break jams in the river ; a cant-hook is not a mooley-cow, as one small boy suggested. A buck-party or stagparty is the opposite to a hen-party, an4 either of them may be cheered by canned song (from a graphaphone). He made a miss-lick is the Western backwoods term for a blow wide of the mark ; mountain-lamb is deer killed out of season, and a moonshiner is a maker of illicit whiskey— it is made in the middle of the night, by the struggling moonbeam’s misty light and the lantern dimly burning. A little misunderstanding about a mule is a brutally facetious explanation in the West of the sudden disappearance of a citizen from his daily walks and haunts.
A lay-out be it known is the Western edition of old Lindley Murray’s common noun, “the name of any person, animal, place or thing.” It is also any proposed enterprise from organizing a state to digging out a prairie-dog.
Pretty Pete showed up from ’Frisco last Friday. He says, “’Twas mortal hot in the cattle-car, we sweated to that degree that we laid dust.” He must be pretty considerable, tolerable, passable well-heeled, for he was able to plank down the spondulix for the stagger-juice all right, all right. He sez he’s a payin’-guest in a Broadway boardin’-house. Wouldn’t that jar your slats ! Pete a payin’-guest ! He’s tried more grafts. Pete—he used to put in his best licks pawing ivory in a down-town dive; dien he YK** an oyster-shucker at a Dago nasn-ioint, and a roper-in-down to Finnegan’s faro-game. He was a plug-ugly piker of Coney Island red-hots and lie’s sold sea-gull tamales to the best families of Tacoma. Then Pete ran a shyster shell-game in East Portland, but had to skin out in shortmetre. That summer Pete experienced religion and was a slang-whanger in the Salvation Army for prettynigh two weeks. Soon he got back to the good old Seattle water-front sellin’ oysters, clams and all saltwater vegetables. But he must have struck a streak in ’Frisco relief-funds all right, all right, for the sucker’s sloshing round here in a shad-bellied spike-tailed coat with slathers of money. Good old Pete!
Down on the water-front an anchor is a mud-hook, and a water-dredging machine become a mud-scoop, and say, did you ever eat planked-shad? It’s fit for an epicure—food for the gods, if done to a turn; it is just shad fastened to a plank and roasted. I tell you it’s a socker of a fish is planked-shad, it goes down as slick as ile, it knocks the daylights out of all yer Queen Anne spoon-victuals. But the gentle sock-eye salmon is the king fish, the top-sawyer :n these waters, he’s a bute—the Columbia River fishermen stay out in their boats all day and all night in salmon-time— they just sleep in spots. If he pulls a good haul he comes in feeling as big as what hogs dream of when they’re too fat to snore. If a blamed Jap gets the wind of him and cuts his net he’s cheaper than bull-beef at a cent a pound. No man who has been raised civilized wants to be cut out by a sanguinary Jap. Sometimes the sockeyes and the Metlakahtla hump-backs are as scarce as hen’s teeth and then every boat in the river is thrashing round like a short-tailed bull in flytime.
Jack-screws are very much in evidence in Seattle these days. They are no relation to Tom-cods or Jim* Jams or Smart Alecks, nor even to Sam Hill or Long-Tom.
Long-Tom be it known is an apparatus used in placers for washing gold. In pay-dirt any day of the year the prospector is apt to make a ténstrike. Pay-dirt in mining phraseology is earth which makes it worth while to the prospector. Similarly we have poor-dirt, rich-dirt, top-dirt. Hence, “on top of dirt” is this side of the grave, and “below dirt” is the miner’s last resting-place.
From the rural press of a Jay-town we gather that a mess of milk is the quantity obtained at a single milking, that murphies, Irish apples or whoppatoes are apt to be mighty scurse this time next year.
In a town boasting so many-“ladies and gentlemen” as does Seattle, it is fitting that there should be parlors enough to go round, and so we have manicures’ parlors and spiritualists’ parlors and candy parlors and photographic parlors and shaving parlors (where they give you a free neck shave!—the only free thing I’ve found in Seattle, and that I couldn’t take advantage of, because it wasn’t transferable). Even the Chinamen rise to the standard and advertise The Palace Laundry and the High Laundry—one John rejoices in the name of One Lung, surely an incipient consumptive.
One Lung is not necessarily a onehorse Chink, though we read daily of a one-horse church or bank or town orJecture. The popularity of onehorse” led to the coinage of “team” and “whole-team” to describe anything satisfactory or magnificent. The New York Herald at the time of the first candidacy of General Grant for the Presidency said, “Let us have no one-horse candidate. General Grant is the man. He is the whole team and a horse extra and a dog under the wagon.”
In the language of America “right here” means now. “If we wanted money,” says Mr. Moody, “we would say so right here, but we are after your souls.”
Jennie and Rastus has rid all the way from Steilacoom; they jest had one mule-critter, so it was a case of ride-and-tie. “I’m reel glad to see ye, Rastus; rench your mouth out, Jennie, with this cup, o’ root-beer. Come in to Seattle to see the elephant, did ye? Jest had a whole raft of folks in here cuttin’ up didoes, a perfic shindig—it would have done you a sight o’ good to see Nathin dance a l\oe-down—you know Nate, why his ma and me was raised ;n Olympia be-
fore the woods wuz burnt. Have some sass and riz-bread, Rastus, I made it myself. My, but you’re spreadin’ yourself, Jennie, with your storeteeth and store-clothes and your hair all done in that Sikie-knot so-fashion, you’re puttin’ on more airs than you can shake a stick at, and your ma and your ma’s ma before her all shoutin’ Methodists. Why Rastus, reach out, your appetite don’t amount to shucks. Did you know that Hiram Hollis has been bound over for shovin’ the queer? Why, yes, and Tom Petrie, who’s on this beat wanted me to give evidence agin Hiram—I don’t know when I was so plumb-bank disgusted with any man as I wuz with Tom. I sez to him sez I, ‘Skin your own skunk, Tom Petrie, I tell you, Mary Ann Butterworth is not doin’ your dirty work, no siree, Bob!” “Well, I don’t know, Aunt Mary Ann, I never took no stock in Tom Petrie nohow, he’s as rough as the back of a hedgehog, Tom is, and as foul as Zebedee’s hen that laid three rotten eggs to a good one ; how they ever come to make a pleeceman out ’n sech punk as that I can’t see.” “Wot’s that you’re lookin’ at, Rastus?” “Why, down to the Rat’s Killer they got a reg'lar Billy-fare of fashionable drinks, they serve them by the clock, and you get a degree if ye go the whole hog. I copied down the procession—I’m going to show it to the Jimtown Agricultural Society and the Young People’s Society of the Solid Citizens of the State of Washington, when I get home :
6 A.M.—Olympia Eye-Opener.
7 A.M.—Absinthe Appetizer.
8 A.AI.—Daisy Digester.
9 A.M.—Seattle Zephyr.
10 A.AI.—Sherry Possum Trot.
11 A.M.—Speak Easy.
12 Noon—Ante Lunch.
2 P.AI.—Tacoma Steal Away.
3 P.M.—Santa Cruz Sour.
4 P.AI.—Queen Anne Bug Juice.
5 P.AI.—Texas Tickler.
6 P.M.—Solid Straight.
7 P.AI.—White Horse Whisper.
8 P.AI.—Eancy Smile.
11 P.M.—Columbia Columbine.
12 midnight—Night Cap.
In the realm of the flower-world the slang term or folk-lore word is sweeter and infinitely to be preferred to the stiff, pedantic and coldly scientific though correct form of the botanist. And with good reason ; the first is the intimate name given to a familiar flower by a child who loves it, the second is the learned term of those who analyze flowers, pull them to pieces petal by petal and stretch their dead bodies on a blotting-pad.
The botanist shows you the ghastly skeleton of the Arisoema triphyllum, and tells you that it is commonly known as “the Indian turnip.” Indian turnip, forsooth ! Ask the little chap in the back alley what it is. Give him a bunch of them in his little hot hands, and see his whole face light up, “Oh, Jack-in-the-pulpit! I didn’t know they were out yet. Where did you get ’em?” If he has had a teacher who loved them, too, perhaps he will quote to you,
“Jack-in-the-pulpit preaches to-day Under the green trees just over the way,
Squirrel and song-sparrow, high on their perch
Hear the sweet lily-bells ringing to church.”
Long may he love them ! He has found the secret that perchance the learned Latinist missed. Fill his arms with “Black-eyed Susans,” and “Heart’s Ease,” and “Love-lies-bleeding,” and the pretty little “WakeRobin,” and old-fashioned “SweetWilliam.” They have a message for him all their own.
The purists, conservators of English undefiled, try their best to keep out of the language of literature and polite society “the low-lived words of slang.” With praiseworthy sternness they elbow back these linguistic pariahs when they come up from their native gutter or camp or mine and knock at what Mulvaney calls “the doorstep of decent folks.” Yet some of these low-bred intruders are strong
enough to hold their own ; here, as elsewhere, it is the survival of the fittest.
The town of Everett, Washington, last Fourth of July displayed flaming posters advertising three purely American forms of merry-making— “Great Callathumpian Parade! Monster Barbecue ! ! Grand Glorious Clam-Bake!!!” The Callathumpian Parade was a grotesque marshaling of misshapen followers of the old Lord of Misrule. The Barbecue was an ox roasted whole in the sight of those who afterwards ate it, but the Clam-Bake was interesting in that it pointed to the custom of the aboriginal Indians. An enormous dish of clams was baked on the beach in an impromptu stove of stones, the clams being wrapped in a bedding of seaweed, while drift-wood served for fuel. That it was good is proved by the fact that the whole caboodle was eaten up ; not a clam remained. It was the straight-goods, there was nothing bogus about it.
Further applications of the fertile get and go are seen in such expressions as these : “I can’t get the hang
of my joggafy-lesson,” “He’s a goner,” “There may be a few blunders on the go-off or the cut-loose, but leave him alone and he’ll get there with both feet.” “To go it bald-headed” is to act on the spur of the moment, i.e., with the impetuosity with which one would rush out without his hat.
What a world of satiric philosophy there is in “Cheer up, the worst is yet to come ; go on with the procession ; shine on, pale moon, don’t mind me.” The man who can think thus will never lose his grip.
A very forceful word is blatherskite, a ' boastful disputatious swaggerer. The New York Herald says : “Every blatherskite Republican spouter is filled to the brim and spouting high protection.” The Independent is responsible for a word pointing to the strenuous life, “But I must close this hurrygraph, which I have no time to review.”
A daisy, a pippin, and a peach are interchangeable words of highest approval. They may apply equally to a dog, a drunkard or a divine, provided individually they measure up to the required standard of excellence.
“The ghost walked to-day, let me know what the damage is, and I’ll pony up.” This may be freely translated, “This is pay-day, let me know my indebtedness, and I’ll settle.” The speaker was well-heeled, if he did belong to a period of chromo-civilization: no doubt he was dressed to kill, and if he wasn’t giving us guff, he had a great plenty.
A little girl aged six found no plate before her at the family board and exclaimed scornfully to her mother, “You’re a hot one to set a table you are.” The mother apologized profusely for her neglect and got a twobit wiggle on her quick and flashed the plate. The little-girl says, “It’s hard work bringing up a mother.”
Boodle is a peculiarly American institution, and it dates back to the first families, being easily traced to the buidel or pocket of the New York Dutch; if you are not in cahoots, you are not in on it. Perhaps you are not built that way, if so you will never cut it fat and it’s no use getting your Irish up.
“He belongs to the bow-and-arrow aristocracy” is the Western equivalent for he has a “touch of tar-brush” ; if you don’t want to be so all-fired polite, you can just call him a breed. A squaw-man defines itself as that degraded character who hangs round Indian reservations. He is the mean white of the South. An Indian doctor is a delate hias medicine man, and his ceremony of initiation is a medicine dance. A potlatch is a feast where presents are distributed, so potlatch or cultus potlatch all over the West stands for a free gift or the act of giving.
Papoose is an Indian child and pickaninny is his negro cousin to the South—papoose and pickaninny are the rouge et noir of babydom.
A tChinook wind, or briefly, a Chinook, is a term adopted from the Indians of the Columbia, it is the wind that comes from the land of the Chinooks—a balmy wind from the Kuro Suvo or Japan Current, cool in summer, warm in winter, setting the icy rivers free, and, like Sandàlphon, the angel of prayer, bearing healing in its wings.
The compounded terms are all succinct. Garden-truck or market-truck is any and all kinds of vegetables .jvhich a hay-seed, a jay, or a Rube brings into town to sell. He wears a hand-me-down and has a straw-lid over his idea-pot. These are his glad rags ; a green-goods man or a goldbrick man is apt to give him the gladhand and first thing he knows he’ll be up against a brace-game. It would be better for Rube to keep to the cookie-shines and bean-feasts of his own verdant village—a dish of plummuss at home is better than a Tomand-Jerry in the tents of the wicked; and this is no hot-air.
The woes of Rube will be related next day by a local pencil-shover, who will pile on the agony, treating poor Rube’s woes as a scoop or a daisy beat. That is the way with an inkslinger, he always looks upon Rube as a meaty person to furnish good copy. Indeed, if you cut out the Rube jokes and the patent outsides and boiler-plate insides of some of the local papers, and blue-pencil the guff of the puff-worker who writes up the down-town leg-dramas, there won’t be much left.
In the meantime our friend Rube has realized that Seattle booze and dope are too rich for his blood ; he has cut them both out and got back to meetin’-seed. Perhaps you don’t know meetin’-seed. It is simple, seductive, first principles .caraway seed used to drive away drowsiness in church.
“She munched a spring of meetin’seed
And read her spelling book.”
The jumping-off place is the confines of civilization, the ever-shifting terminus of a railroad being thus for a while typically known ; it is the Ultima Thule of the Ancients.
A debater in the schools is a logicchopper, a kitchen scullion is a potwrestler, a woman who engages in stock speculation is a mud-hen, and a widow is a man-trap, this last evidently from the elder Weller who warned Sam to “bevare” of them. An interpreter is a linguister, and then there are those two fearful abortions, an old residenter and a landscapist. May someone put the everlasting kybosh on all such terms!
Tender inquiry for the health of a man’s wife will bring forth such responses as these: “Oh, she’s mid-
dlin' well, or middlin’ smart, nothin’ alarmin’ but jest so and so, tolerable but so as to be round, not over and above well, but cornin’ along nicely.” If she’s right-down sick, why she looks like the breaking-up of hard winter or the latter end of a misspent life; or, graphically, she looks like the last of pea-pickin’, i.e., passe, faded, sickly—this term is most apt when we call to mind how unsatisfactory and tired the last peas on the vine look at the end of the season.
Soak is an elastic term. If you drink too much you are an old soak, becoming hard-up you put your watch in soak, and being on the down-grade the chucker-out and everybody else soaks it to you and bully-rags you till you’re all broke up. Then the jig is up and vou may as well keel over, _ it is the end of Old Man Smith, or Old Woman Abrams.
But we always come back for refreshment to the out-door terms; these come as a clean breath from God’s all-out-doors:
A bull-whacker insidiously pokes his gad into the sad-eyed ox and tells him to “Come, now, goll-darn you, emigrate, I say.” The Klondike term for it is “Mush !” and the Indian says “Klatawa !” And they all mean to make yourself scarce. When you get tired of anything and back out or try to, you have got cold feet. To take a leg-stretchin’ is to take a drink, to walk up to the refreshment counter —this harks back to the old stagecoaching days.
Line-riding is a plainsman’s term for patroling in winter time the outlying lines or beats within which the cattle are stationed. When a cowboy is on duty or off duty he is on herd or off herd, when he makes tracks he changes his quarters with the connotation of getting away in a hurry— he doesn’t mosey along for he is no narrow-gauge mule. Sometimes he takes active part in a necktie sociable, that is a Vigilance Committee’s execution, or a Judge Lynch’s tea-party. Pilgrims is a cattleman’s term for cattle on the march,-a maverick is an unbranded yearling steer which escapes from the herd, and when the whole bunch stampede it’s up to your mustang or bronco or cayuse. This hardy native pony is a vital factor of Western life, sparing in diet, inured to all weathers, capable of untiring work, he is as adapted to the prairies as the camel is to the desert.
In the language of the plains a revolver or rifle becomes meat-in-thepot, a peace-maker, a pill-bottle, a one-eyed scribe, or Mr. Speaker, against whose ruling there is no appeal.
Moon-glade is a silvery line of light cast by the moon’s rays on water —the most rigid purist could scarcely take exception to this. And by the way, a sailor calls a large hard-tack a moon—“three moons and a hunk o’ sow-belly.”
In the North, moose congregate in a family of from fifteen to twenty members and the encampment thus formed is called a moose-yard. The moose-bird is the Canada jay or Whiskey-Jack.
An article on Americanisms would be incomplete without some reference
to the colored brethren. At a recent congress of negro societies the following fraternities were represented —the names are from the official record. I have nothing extenuated nor set down aught in malice: The First
National Phoenix, The Loving Sons of Daniel, The Janissaries of Light, The First Star of Jacob, The Rising Sons of the Vineyard, The Independent National Blues, The Young Rising Sons of Ham, The Lord’s Delight, The Teamsters’ Benevolent Stars of the West, The United Sons of Love, The Christian Sons of Peace, The Golden Gilt Dramatic Association of Annapolis, The Benevolent Society of the Young Shining Army, The Sons and Daughters of I Will Arise.
Fair American (hearing the dinner gong) : “ Guess Popp, you'd better jump into a boiled shirt. There goes the hash hammer ! ” —Punch.