post The Old West Lives in our Language

June 10th, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 9:53 am

By W. St. Germain

This month’s article arose from a simple question my son asked me. After watching a western, he commented that he would like to try beef jerky. He then asked, ‘How do you jerk meat?’ After recovering from the shock of such a question, my best answer was, ‘How should I know?’ This is what comes with encouraging your children to ask questions. Since I can never let things go once my curiosity is piqued, I had to find out. One thing led to another and today we will look at how some words and expressions arose. Note though, that interpretations vary from place to place so don’t be surprised to find some cases where a different explanation is given. For example, many sources attribute the expression ‘in hock’ to the old game of Faro while others insist it is of Dutch origin and has nothing to do with Faro.

We will start with the mysterious jerky. I took the word jerk literally (as one does) and couldn’t begin to imagine how the sudden wrenching and twisting of a piece of meat could produce the mummified strips that we call beef jerky. I suspected salt was involved but that was about it. After considering the whole muscle physiology angle, I concluded that ‘jerky’ had to have another meaning. It does. The word is a corruption of a French word charqui. When you say it, it does sound a bit like jerky (okay, so extend your imagination a little). Charqui means dried meat, in particular, dried beef. Since there were many French trappers back then, one can assume that when eating the dried meat, they used the word and an English modification resulted. Or maybe it came from mishearing ‘charqui’ at the saloon. Incidentally, another French word salon, meaning hall or large room, is where we get saloon.

Bob Hoy as Joe Butler

Joe Butler (Bob Hoy) sends a glass of redeye whiskey flying in
‘To Stand for Something More’

Saloon bring us to whiskey. I knew the old farmer’s term bumblefoot referred to an infection that often affected poultry* (ulcerative pododermatitis) but I had not heard of tanglefoot until HC came along. I would never have associated the word tanglefoot to mean whiskey but it does. I am only guessing here but my theory is this: The word tangle is related to the Swedish taggala, meaning to disarrange, jumble or entangle. Coupled with ‘foot’ it’s not a huge step to assume that a person’s normally functioning legs became tangled after a few too many drinks. Consequently, the drunken stagger could be considered tangled feet.
* Affects rodents as well as birds

Red eye, something Buck orders often, is easier to understand. A night on the town has produced more than one pair of bloodshot eyes. You might like to know that whiskey (also spelled whisky) comes from two Irish/Gaelic words meaning, waters of life! Too much liquor landed people in the hoosgow (or hoosegow), meaning jail. Hoosgow is believed to come from the Spanish juzgado, meaning a court – and associated cell one may be locked up in later. That one takes a wee bit more of a stretch of the imagination.

To be in cahoots is another one with a French origin. The word cahute means cabin. Teams of French trappers often shared cabins. Understandably, they lived apart from the English so they could speak their native language together. They were, to the English speaking people, living in cahoots. Not all were trusted and over time, this took on a negative connotation. Nowadays it means working together as partners, in collusion.

Holler is another good one. This means to shout or exclaim loudly. Many ranchers went weeks or more without meeting friends. When they met in the towns, they shouted out ‘Hollo!’ or ‘Hello!’ The Spanish greeting ‘Ola!’ sounds similar. Over time, these loud greetings were referred to as ‘holloing’. Some young ladies who shouted out this way were reminded to, ‘Stop holloing, dear, it’s not lady like.’ The word later evolved to hollering. It took on added meaning to include when anyone shouted about anything, pleased or not.

I rather like Many Irons in the Fire to describe juggling various tasks. Blacksmiths tended to work on several pieces of iron at once. This is because they could only hammer the red hot pieces briefly before they cooled and needed reheating. Having many irons in the fire was an efficient way to ensure there was always a piece hot enough to work on while the others reheated. Today we would call it multi-tasking but I prefer the Old West term.

Bite the Bullet is another curious expression. It means preparing to do something difficult or unpleasant. When a person received medical treatment without anaesthetic, they were often given something small and hard to bite on to help them not to scream out during the procedure. I doubt that a bullet was ever given. They’re too small. If so, I expect the person performing the procedure would soon be dealing with a choking episode as well!

Henry Darrow as Manolito Montoya

Manolito Montoya (Henry Darrow) is all in at the poker table
in ‘Quiet Day in Tucson’

At the end of a tiring day, we often say, ‘I’m all in.’ This phrase was born at the poker table. When a player had put all of his money on the table he was all in. He had nothing left to give. Saying I’m stumped also suggests being all in. Pioneers used to remove tree stumps to clear land for homes. When a stump was near impossible to move, the person was stumped. The stump got the better of him. This is another example of debatable meanings. Some people credit the expression with the game of cricket. Cricket uses three wooden stumps that can lead to the batter being ‘out’. Either way, getting stumped means you can go no further.

While there are many more I’ll save for another article, I will close with something for those of us who are left-handed. A number of expressions used in those days arose from left-handedness. I bet you didn’t know that! According to superstition, most things ‘left’ had a sinister touch to them. For centuries many people believed that left-handed individuals were witches. Some still distrust ‘lefties’. I remember my Kindergarten teacher tying my hand to the back of my tunic belt and forcing me ‘not to use that evil hand’ (until my mother found out!) Having two left feet implies being clumsy. Ungainly dancing had to be the result of the cursed ‘left-ness’ affecting feet, as opposed to having feet that ‘worked properly.’

Left-ness also led to, Getting out of the wrong side of the bed meaning one is having a bad day or is in a terrible mood. Superstitious people believed one must get out of bed putting the right foot on the floor first. Those who put their left foot down first were headed for a bad day, hence got out of the wrong side of the bed.

Out of a simple question, I have developed an interest in learning more about the history of these western expressions. I learned much writing this article – including that beef jerky is definitely an acquired taste!

1 Comment »

  1. An excellent article. However, “bite the bullet” is in fact a literal expression. Bullets were not always as small as they are now. The Brown Bess musket, which was the most common weapon used in the American Revolution and was carried by Santa Anna’s army at the Alamo, fired a .75 caliber ball, which had a diameter of 3/4 of an inch. The most common bullet of the Civil War was .58 caliber, a 460-grain bullet about the size of a man’s thumb from the tip to the knuckle. The size of bullets gradually became smaller over the years as the science of ballistics improved. The .44-40 and .45-70, which were among the first to be encased in brass or copper cartridges, were popular during the latter half of the 19th Century, with the most common round shrinking to .30 caliber after the turn of the Century (i.e., .30-06 and .30-30). Using bullets during surgery was apparently a common practice among Army surgeons until anesthesia came along in 1846. the lead was relatively soft, and didn’t break or splinter like a stick. Several years ago, I saw a musket ball at the Ralph Foster Museum ( at the College of the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri, that clearly had tooth marks in it. (By the way, this is a fantastic museum.)

    Another note on right and left: the left side of a horse is called the near side, and the right is the off side. You always mount a horse on the near side. I don’t know how old these terms are, but John, Buck, Manolito, and Blue would have definitely been familiar with them.

    Comment by Buck Shaw — September 16, 2010 @ 9:01 am

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