This list grows all the time, so check back for new words.
acknowledge the corn = admit the truth; confess (especially to an obvious lie or shortcoming)
ahint = behind (from “hinter”)
airing the lungs = cussing
alfalfa desperado = farmer
all quiet on/along the Potomac = peaceful; undisturbed. Dates to Civil War bulletins ascribed to Gen. George B. McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac 1861-62. Popularized by Ethel Lynn Beers’ 1861 poem “The Picket Guard.”
among the willows = dodging the law
at loose ends = in an unsettled or uncertain state. Arose c. 1807 in the U.S. from the earlier (c. 1540-50) idiomatic use of “loose end” to mean a detail left hanging.
at outs with = no longer on friendly terms with (from about 1826; became “on the outs with” around 1900)
beat the Devil around the stump = avoid a chore, responsibility, or difficult task
beat the living daylights out of = thrash, punish, chastise. Americanism; arose 1880s based on the late-18th Century threat to “let daylight into” a foe. The original phrase meant intent to kill by sword, knife, bullet, or other deadly weapon, but as the force of law began to catch up with the U.S.’s western frontier, the phrase was softened to lessen the perceived risk of hanging for murder should the target of the threat be found dead.
bend an elbow = have a drink (still in use)
big bug = important person; dignitary
bilk = a cheat or to cheat. Although the 1651 edition of the OED defines the word as a cribbage term meaning to spoil an opponent’s score by playing unusable cards, in the western U.S. after the Civil War, calling someone a bilk was about the worst insult one man could bestow on another. “…[T]he most degrading epithet that one can apply to another is to pronounce him ‘a bilk.’ No Western man of pluck will fail to recent such concentrated vituperation.” (A.K. McClure, Three Thousand Miles Through the Rocky Mountains, 1869)
bite the dust = to be thrown from a horse. Originally meant to be slain in mortal combat (from Homer’s Iliad), but American cowboys often subverted colorful old phrases to suit their own purposes. In this case, presumably the embarrassment of being abruptly unsaddled created a severe dent in, if not death of, a man’s pride. When cowboys meant “killed,” they said “bite the ground.” Although cowboys still use “bite the dust” to indicate an abrupt unsaddling, the term reverted to its original meaning among the larger U.S. population c. 1938, thanks to Hollywood westerns.
bite the ground = to die
blackleg = gambler or swindler (popular 1835-1870)
bog rider = on a trail drive or working cattle ranch, the cowboy whose job is to pull stranded cattle out of muck
brand him for the eternal range = kill someone
bronc scratcher = one who breaks wild horses
brush popper = range hand who hunts cattle in thickets and other deep scrub
budge = liquor
budgy = drunk
bull hides = heavy leather chaps
bunk = pretentious, insincere, or nonsensical talk or writing. Short for bunkum, a phonetic spelling of North Carolina’s Buncombe County. In 1820, as part of the contentious congressional debate about the Missouri Compromise, U.S. Rep. Felix Walker — from Buncombe County — launched into a tedious, irrelevant speech admittedly intended to generate newspaper headlines. When other members of the House, frustrated and irritated, tried to shut him up, Walker refused to yield the floor, saying he was not speaking “to the House, but to Buncombe.” Bunkum entered the language on the spot; the abbreviated version appeared by 1841.
burn the breeze = to ride at full speed
buscadero = gunfighter (Spanish buscadero literally means searcher. Slang obscure; maybe “seeking trouble.”)
buttermilk = an orphaned calf
buttermilk cow = a bull
buzzsaws = spurs on which the rowel bears long, sharp points (also sometimes called Mexican spurs)
by the ears = battling unrelenting opponent, either physically or with words (“Jake and Bill had each other by the ears.”)
caboodle = a whole lot; an abundance; more than enough
cabrón = an outlaw of low breeding and even lower principles (Spanish for “goat”)
California widow = a woman whose husband is away from her for an extended period (Americanism; arose c. 1849, during the California Gold Rush)
call the turn = to predict accurately (from gambling: A man who was unnaturally lucky was said to be able to call the turn of the cards.)
chuck = food
churn-twister = homesteader, farmer, squatter
come a cropper = fail (usually in a spectacular way)
come off the rimrock = back away from a discussion that has turned unfriendly
corpse and cartridge occasion = shootout
crack a cap = fire a bullet
crammer = a lie
dally = to take a wrap or several wraps around the saddle horn with a rope, making the rope temporarily secure
deadfall = a rough saloon, from the usually warranted notion any given customer was likely to meet his end inside as the result of a violent “misunderstanding.” The more literal meaning, branches that had fallen from trees and could be picked up instead of having to cut firewood, arose much earlier.
dodger = from the late 19th Century onward in the U.S. and Australia, an advertising leaflet or flyer. The slang definition “wanted poster” did not attach until after 1930.
doxology works = a church
drag = women’s clothing worn by a man. 1870s theater slang from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor.
drag a lariat = interfere
drag rider = the cowboy who rides behind a herd to prevent stragglers. The dusty, dirty job usually went to the least-senior hands or to those who were being punished.
dressed to kill = double entendre meaning not only that a man wearing two guns most likely was a professional killer, but also that wearing a double rig (a holstered pistol on each hip) made it difficult for a gunman to do anything with either hand without implying a threat (and therefore asking to be killed).
druthers = preferences (based on a dialectical contraction of “I’d rather”: “If’n I had my druthers, I’d go fishin’.”)
dry-gulch = to ambush someone, particularly in a cowardly manner
dude = fastidious man; fop or clotheshorse. The term originated in NYC 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.
duds = clothing
eating gravel (sometimes “eating gravel without stooping”) = being thrown from a horse
end-swapper = a bronc that reverses its position (“swaps ends”) in the middle of a high buck — the horse’s hindquarters land facing the direction formerly faced by its nose
exalted = hanged (“Ol’ Lonesome Pete got hisself exalted when they caught him red-handed with a runnin’ iron.”)
exodusters = biblically inspired name taken by former slaves who departed the post-Civil War South for the promised land of Kansas
eyeballer = a meddler
fancy woman = high-dollar whore or a kept woman
fast trick = loose woman
feathered out = dressed up
feed off your own range = to be nosey (“Off,” in this case, means “away from” or “outside.”)
filly = an unmarried woman (literally, a young mare)
fish or cut bait = make a decision; take a stand. Although probably much older among seafaring types, the Americanism became popular in 1876 after U.S. Rep. Joseph Gurney Cannon [R-Illinois] used the expression on the House floor to demand his Democratic opposition approve a bill making the silver dollar legal tender.
five beans in the wheel = five cartridges in the cylinder of a revolver (For safety, the hammer always rests on an empty chamber.)
flank girth (pronounced girt) = the hind cinch on a two-cinch saddle rig
flannel mouth = smooth talker (especially politicians and salesmen)
fly = smart, sharp, aware
forty dead men = box of cartridges
frog-strangler = heavy rain; a downpour
from the get-go = from the beginning
from the jump = from the beginning
get in one’s hair = to persistently annoy, vex, or irk. First appeared in print in the Oregon Statesman, 1851, though the expression undoubtedly is older. Etymologists speculate the phrase originally may have compared an irritating person to head lice.
get the drop on = to obtain a marked advantage, especially with the help of a gun. Probably dates to the California gold rush of 1849, when claim-jumpers sometimes seemed to materialize from the ether before hijacking a profitable claim at gunpoint. First documented appearance in print 1869 in Alexander K. McClure’s Three Thousand Miles through the Rocky Mountains: “So expert is he with his faithful pistol, that the most scientific of rogues have repeatedly attempted in vain to get ‘the drop’ on him.”
gone to Texas = on the wrong side of the law. Dates at least to the Civil War, when deserters and other former soldiers from both armies — suddenly unemployed and inured to violence — migrated to still-wild, wide-open Texas, “lost” their names, and took up outlawry.
goobers or goober peas = peanuts (still in use)
goose-drowner = heavy rain; a downpour
go over the jump = to die
gophering = digging for something
gospel sharp = a preacher (usually an itinerant minister)
go to town = do something with enthusiasm
gouge = to cheat or swindle
go way around ’em = a warning to avoid a potentially dangerous situation
grab the branding iron by the hot end = take a chance
graffiti = 1851, for ancient wall inscriptions found in the ruins of Pompeii, from Italian graffiti, plural of graffito “a scribbling,” a diminutive formation from graffio “a scratch or scribble,” from graffiare “to scribble,” ultimately from Greek graphein “to scratch, draw, write.” Sense extended 1877 to include recently made crude drawings and scribbling.
grass-bellied = disparaging term for the prosperous (especially those whose prosperity had gone to their waist)
grassed = thrown from a horse
grasser = a cow fed only grass (From the emergence of feedlots in the late 1800s until the latter decades of the 20th Century, eating grass-fat beef was a sign of poverty, as the meat was leaner and often tougher than beef from cows fed supplements.)
grass widow = divorcee
gravel in his gizzard = brave
greaser = derogatory term for a Hispanic of the lower classes (arose in Texas before 1836)
Great Seizer = sheriff
grub = food
grubby = dirty. Arose c. 1845 in the U.S., presumably as a reference to digging in the dirt for worms.
gun = until the early 20th Century, cannon or long guns like shotguns or rifles
gunman = shootist; gunfighter. First recorded use 1903 in a New York newspaper. (Gunsman, with an S in the middle, arose on the American frontier during the Revolutionary period.)
gunman’s sidewalk = the middle of the street
gunny = hired gun
gunsel = derogatory term for a newcomer with limited knowledge
gun shark = gunfighter
gun sharp = expert gunman
gun-shy = hesitant, wary, or distrustful because of previous experience. First documented use 1884.
gun wadding = white bread
gyp = female dog
hard-boiled hat = a derby or bowler (Many cowboys didn’t have a high regard for the fancy duds worn by Easterners.)
hauling timber = cheating
hay-shaker = homesteader, farmer, squatter
heeled / heeled up = armed
hell-bent for leather/hellbent for leather = at breakneck speed; recklessly determined. Arose in the American West during the latter decades of the 19th century, most likely from the earlier phrase “hell for leather” popularized by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s usage applied specifically to a dash on horseback. The Americanism generalized to any reckless act.
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 so appropriate (although the shift could as easily represent a simple mispronunciation that stuck).
hemp committee = lynch mob
highfalutin’ = fancy, self-important, pompous
hogleg = large revolver. Originally referred to the Bisley single-action Colt (first manufactured 1894), but later generalized to any big pistol.
hold your horses = settle down; take it easy; be patient. Original usage was literal: During harness races at American county fairs, horses picked up their drivers’ nerves, often resulting in a false start. Consequently, announcers frequently admonished participants to “hold their horses.” First appearance in print: New Orleans Times Picayune, 1844.
hoodlum = on a cattle drive, the cook’s helper (chops wood, peels potatoes, washes dishes, etc.)
hoosegow = jail
hornswoggle = to cheat or trick
housewife = sewing kit
hull = saddle
hunker down = hide out; take shelter. Hunker (meaning to crouch) arose 1710-20 in Scotland, possibly as a corruption of the Old Norse huka (to crouch) or hokra (to crawl). Americans in the southwest added “down” sometime in the mid-1800s. Until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, used the dialectical phrase in a speech, “hunker down” was relatively unknown outside the American Southwest. (Thanks to Susan B. Goodwin for asking.)
hunting for water = crazy
in cahoots with = in league, cooperation, or partnership with, especially in a sneaky manner. Americanism dating to the Revolution; derived from the French cahute or Dutch kajuit, both of which mean “a small cabin.”
Indian broke = said of a horse trained to be mounted from the right side
individual = on a ranch, a horse owned by a cowboy (as opposed to the horses in the remuda or string provided by the ranch)
ironclad possum = armadillo
ironed by a blacksmith = to have one’s legs shackled
iron the calf crop = brand new calves
ivories = poker chips or dice
jar = disagreement, quarrel, dispute
jiggle = the ordinary gait of a cowpony, averaging about four to five miles per hour
jonah = bad luck
Jones’ place = a line camp; alternately, privy
keep your eyes peeled = keep a sharp lookout; be very observant or extremely alert. Arose in the U.S. about 1850, apparently as a variant of an earlier form “keep your eyes skinned” (which sounds even more painful). According to Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings (Charles Earle Funk, Harper Perennial, 2002), the first documented appearance of the latter phrase occurred in the Shelbyville, Kentucky, Political Examiner in 1833. (Hat tip to Larry Bjornson for asking the question.)
kit and posse = the lot; the whole thing
knock-down drag-out = violent fight. Arose c. 1859 in the U.S.
knocked into a cocked hat = fouled up, rendered useless
knock galley west = beat senseless
laying pipe = intentionally misleading someone (usually said of politicians)
leg bail = unauthorized absence
light a shuck = scram, beat it, leave in a hurry
lightskirt = woman of questionable virtue
little Mary = on a cattle drive, the cook’s helper (chops wood, peels potatoes, washes dishes, etc.)
loaded for bear = well prepared. Arose on the American frontier about the mid-1700s, when a hunter did not consider himself sufficiently armed unless his musket carried a charge heavy enough to drop the largest, most dangerous beast he might encounter: a bear.
long/hard row to hoe = difficult, tedious, or dreary task, as though removing weeds from rows of crops. First used in print by David Crockett in his 1835 book bearing the ridiculously long title An account of Col. Crockett’s tour to the North and down East, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty-four: his object being to examine the grand manufacturing establishments of the country: and also to find out the condition of its literature and morals, the extent of its commerce, and the practical operation of “The Experiment.” (“I never opposed Andrew Jackson for the sake of popularity. I knew it was a hard row to hoe, but I stood up to the rack.”)
lucifers = stick matches
macer = swindler, thief, villain
make tracks = leave quickly; skedaddle; run off
manhandle = to handle roughly. First recorded use 1865, from the earlier nautical meaning “to move by force of men” (instead of using tackle or levers). The nautical connotation arose from the mid-15th-century meaning “to wield a tool”; the 1865 connotation seems more closely related to the late-15th-century common usage implication “to attack an enemy.”
maverick factory = rustlers who killed calves’ branded mothers so they could claim the unbranded, or maverick, calf
measured a full sixteen hands high = in Texas, respected (“There stands a man who measures a full sixteen hands high.”)
Mexican iron = rawhide (so called because clothing and other items made from cowhide, used extensively by Mexican vaqueros, wore like iron)
Mexican standoff = stalemate; impasse. First documented use 1891, though the expression may be older. “Stand-off,” meaning draw or tie, arose c. 1843. Though some sources claim “Mexican standoff” is Australian in origin, a more likely source is Texas, where Mexican banditos routinely crossed the border for nefarious purposes. Originally, the idiom referred to three mutual enemies facing each other with drawn weapons. If A shot B, C would shoot A, thereby winning the conflict. Everyone wanted to be C, so nobody fired — leaving the dispute unresolved.
Mexican strawberries = dried beans
mudsill = unflattering Confederate term for a Yankee
mutton-puncher = sheepherder
nailed to the counter = proven a lie
nester = homesteader, farmer, squatter
nickel-plated = term of admiration meaning the best or fancy. Said of everything from saddles to a well-dressed woman.
nighthawk = the cowboy whose job it was to watch over a herd at night; also, someone avoiding the law
odd stick = an eccentric person
Old States = back East (generally, New England)
on the cuidado = running from the law (from the Spanish cuidado, meaning care; ten cuidado = be careful)
on the dodge = hiding out; keeping a low profile, often to avoid the law
on the prod = looking for trouble (said of both people and animals)
on the shoot = looking for trouble
passing the buck = sidestepping an unwanted obligation. Arose as a gambling term during the Civil War period in the U.S., although didn’t appear in print until 1871 (Mark Twain’s Roughing It.) “Buck” was verbal shorthand for “buck-handled knife,” a weapon with a handle carved from deer antler. So everyone knew who was dealing (presumably in case someone needed to be blamed for a suspicious fall of the cards), a buck rested in front of the dealer, who passed the knife to the next player when it was his turn to deal. If a player didn’t want the responsibility, he could pass the buck along to the next man in line.
paw around for turmoil = look for trouble
pecker neck = a horse trained for riding but not for working cattle
pecker pole = Pacific Northwest logging term for a small tree or sapling
pecos = literally, to kill someone and toss the body into Texas’ Peco River to cover up the crime; by extension, to murder (see also dry-gulch)
Pecos Bill = any man known for stretching the truth; a teller of tall tales (from a fictional character in folk tales about a cowboy who lassoed and rode tornados and performed other larger-than-life stunts)
Pecos swap = a theft
peddler of loads = teller of tall tales
pirooting = fooling around; meandering
pistolero = expert with a handgun
play the papers = gamble with a marked deck of cards
pronto bug = a gunman who was quick on the draw; gunfighter
prowl = to hunt cattle, especially in draws, thickets, and other spots from which they’re difficult to round up
puddin’ foot = an awkward horse
pull in your horns = calm down; back away from a fight (“Pull in your horns, Slim. I didn’t know she was your gal.”)
pull (someone’s) leg = exaggerate or tease. From 1882, perhaps from the notion of playfully tripping. From 1830, the phrase more literally referred to the practice of awakening a sleeping passenger in a ship’s berth (and later, railway cars) by pulling his leg.
pull up = check a course of action. First recorded use 1808, as a figurative reference to pulling on the reins to stop a horse.
quirly = hand-rolled cigarette
quit the flats = leave the area
ranahan (or ranny) = a top hand; a cowboy who’s very good at his job
rattlesnaked = ambushed (literally or figuratively) in a particularly devious or cunning way. Dates at least to 1818.
redbone = in Texas, a person of mixed black and Indian ethnicity
remuda = a herd of saddle-broken horses provided by a ranch; ranch hands chose their mounts for the day from the herd (see also “string”)
ride the long trail = die
riding drag = performing an unpleasant task (from the term for bringing up the rear on a cattle drive, a dusty, smelly job usually reserved for those with least seniority and/or skill or drovers who were on the outs with the trail boss)
rip = reprobate
rip-roarin’ = boisterously wild and exciting (derived from uproarious, 1825-1835)
roostered = drunk
rootin’-tootin’ = rambunctious; causing a ruckus (from “root” [cheer] and “toot” [make noise]; first appearance in print: 1875). The term entered the modern lexicon in the 1930s by way of Hollywood westerns, which used the phrase as a humorous description of cowboy culture.
sacked his saddle = died (When a cowhand died on the trail, his friends sometimes sent his belongings, including his saddle, home in a gunnysack or burlap bag.)
saddled a dead horse on him = burdened someone with an unwelcome obligation
scallyhoot = to leave quickly; make tracks; run off; skedaddle
scarce as hen’s teeth = rare
seven black ones and a coulee = big and dangerous
shake a stick at = figuratively, an overabundance; alternately, worthless. The former usage dates to the early 19th Century and may have arisen from young boys using sticks as pretend sabers to round up hordes of imaginary redcoats as they as they played heroes of the Revolutionary War. The latter usage was first documented in print by David Crockett in his 1835 memoir, when he implied a temperance house was dreary by writing it offered “nothing worth shaking a stick at.”
shake hands with Saint Peter = die
shindig = big party; elaborate celebration (still in use)
shootist = an expert marksman
shoot or give up the gun = quit talking and take some action
shorthorn = tenderfoot; newcomer
short of hat size = crazy
short-trigger man = gunfighter
six-gun = handgun with a revolving cylinder. Arose after 1836, when Samuel Colt introduced his first patented repeating pistol. “Six-shooter” usurped six-gun’s slang popularity c. 1850, esp. in Texas, where “six-shooter” arose among the Texas Rangers after Colt designed the 1847 Walker model to the specifications of Texas Rangers Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker.
six-shooter = the most common term for a revolver. Arose 1847 among the Texas Rangers. Until the early 20th century, the term “gun” referred to cannon or long guns like rifles or shotguns.
skedaddle (also skeedaddle) = to leave quickly; run off
sockdolager = a heavy, finishing blow, either physically or verbally
son of a gun = politer version of the epithet “son of a bitch,” indicating extreme contempt. Arose 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. (First documentation of the more profane phrase: Shakespeare’s King Lear, 1603.)
sop = gravy (Among cowboys, using the word “gravy” marked the speaker as a tenderfoot.)
sound on the goose = pro-slavery. Arose in Kansas c. 1854 (following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act) as a way to state one’s allegiance without actually referring to the South’s “peculiar institution.” How geese became involved is unknown, but because the act allowed each community within the two states to decide for itself whether to allow slavery, in many Kansas communities newcomers were told to move on if they gave any other response to the question “How are you on the goose?”
sporting house = brothel
sporting ladies (or sporting women) = prostitutes
step across = to mount (a horse)
sticky rope = a rustler
string = a herd of saddle-broken horses provided by a ranch; ranch hands chose their mounts for the day from the herd (see also “remuda”)
studying to be a halfwit = not very intelligent (sarcasm; usually said of someone who’s just pulled a boneheaded stunt)
stuffing dudes = telling tall tales
switcher = a nervous horse (shortened form of “switchtail”)
switchtail = a nervous horse (often shortened to “switcher”)
tail out = to leave, usually in a hurry (“He tailed out of that saloon right fast after dropping that fifth ace.”)
take the rag off = surpass; beat all (often sarcastic: “Now if that don’t take the rag off the bush.”)
talk the bark off a tree = to speak extensively, especially in a severe manner. Americanism derived from peeling logs to build frontier cabins. First documented use 1891, though the expression may be much older.
tarnation = socially acceptable oath derived from a blend of ’tarnal (corruption of eternal) and damnation. Arose in the U.S. about 1790.
The Old States = back East (generally, New England)
tie-down man = gunfighter (from the habit of tying a rawhide thong around through the bottom of a holster and around the gunfighter’s thigh in order to make sure the holster didn’t ride up or move during a quick draw)
tonsil varnish = whiskey
tornado juice = whiskey
town with the hair on = a tough town known for violence or wild behavior (like the towns at the end of cattle trails)
treed = cornered
trying to find the long end of a square quilt = sheepherding (Cowboys thought all sheepherders had been driven crazy by their solitary existence.)
unsalted = young, inexperienced, untested
unshucked = naked (used in reference to both guns out of their holster and people out of their clothes)
uppish = proud, insolent
up a tree = cornered
up the spout = gone to waste or ruin
vamoose = leave in a hurry; scram (from the Spanish vamos [“we go”] or vamonos [“let’s go”])
vaulting house = brothel
visiting (pronounced “VIZ-tin”) harness = dressy clothes
voucher = during the Indian wars in the Southwest, an Indian scalp taken by a white man in order to collect a bounty
waddy / waddie = originally, a thief or rustler; by 1895, any ranch hand who works on horseback
wake snakes = raise a ruckus
war bag = cowboy’s bundle of personal possessions (clothing, tobacco, cartridges, letters from home, etc.)
war knot = knot tied in a horse’s mane or tail to keep long hair out of the way while working
washinango = a person of mixed Indian and black heritage
wearing her bustle backwards = pregnant
whippersnapper = 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 inextricably associating the term with cranky elders in the Old West.
whittler = cutting horse
wild and woolly = untamed; rowdy. Americanism first documented in 1855 in The Protestant Episcopal Church Quarterly Review and Register (“wild and woolly-haired Negrillo”). In the post-Civil War years, as dime novels and newspaper accounts popularized sensational tales about Indians, outlaws, lawmen, land and gold rushes, etc. in the new territories, the alliterative phrase “wild and woolly West” became a popular way for Easterners to describe the entire region west of the Mississippi River.
windies = tall tales
woke up the wrong passenger = angered someone who’s liable to retaliate
yamping = petty theft
yellowbelly = coward
zambo = a person of mixed Indian and black heritage