It has seemed to us, of late years, that profanity has increased in the West. One cannot walk the streets of any of our western towns or cities without having his ears assailed by horrid oaths. It is an evil which calls for some more active efforts to repress it, but what they should be we are not able to point out.--Presbyterian Herald.
Excerpt, German Reformed Messenger, December 3, 1851
I preached the first sermon delivered at Roseburg [circa 1851], and it was in Aaron Rose's saloon. . . . At the close of the prayer a stranger arose and exclaimed, "By h--l, that is the first prayer I've heard in a dog's age; hit 'em again, stranger." The remark coming at the time might have disconcerted some of our ministers today, but we pioneers had become used to such things, and I started in on my sermon.
Rev. J. W. Miller, "Founding a Great Church," Sunday Oregonian, Portland, December 9, 1900, page 10
Well, one night in June , Barney and I made our bed down in the back end of the cabin, and it being a warm night left the door open. It was a clear, beautiful moonlit night, and about midnight I awoke, saw the cabin was all dark, couldn't think what it meant; just then felt our faithful watch dog, that was lying beside me, commence shivering. He shook as though he had the ague.James H. Twogood, "Bear Stories and Other Early-Day Narratives," Boise, Idaho Evening Capital News, March 24, 1908, page 5
By this time I had my eyes open and began to come to my senses; I took a good look and there stood a monster black bear with his forefeet on the door sill, his body filing the whole door opening, and he was taking a good view of the interior of the cabin. At this juncture my hair raised, but I didn't. I simply turned over and whispered gently in to Barney's sunburned ear. "Barney! Barney!!" He awoke and asked "Whattherhellyerwant?" I replied "Thar's a b'ar on the threshold!" "Oh!"
We were rather surprised to find that Sir Edward [Bulwer Lytton], to whom we accorded the character of a citizen of the world, has not yet emancipated himself from the idea that all Americans talk western slang. Richard Avenel, who has lived and made his money in New York, when he returns talks about being "Catawampously chawed up," and being "knocked into almighty smash," with a number of tarnations, &c., &c. Now this is all very foolish. Such dialect is not to be met with here, and seldom even in the far West. Its principal abiding place is in the brains of such young gentlemen as Mr. Howard Paul, who with a very limited knowledge of their own country, go over to England and write these American stories, in which, to atone for their deficiencies in real knowledge of national character, they take occasion to blazon forth all the vulgar slang they are master of, which the poor blind public, who believe that everything eccentric must be true, cry to this wretched balderdash, "How very characteristic!"
Excerpt, New York Times, February 22, 1853, page 2
Far Western Lawgivers and Preachers
Of course there must be a legislature as soon as a rough territory is organized, and somebody must "run" for it, and somebody be elected in all the divisions to sit in the local parliament, and all who are so chosen have the title of "honorable." Indeed, it seems as if in these parts of the world every government official, except the policeman, has this handle to his name. It does not always follow that these honorables are the worthiest men to be had, any more than it always follows that honorable members of the British Parliament comprise the flower of our British intellect; but one thing is certain, in the West, at least, and probably over the whole of America, that the Legislature is almost sure to contain the wordiest members of society; for to speak, or "make a few remarks" on something is absolutely indispensable to a Western man.
In the wilder parts of the settlements members of the legislature have often been elected, not so much for their talents, as for being "good hands at poker," or "great on a spree," and one of these ("the honorable gentleman from Mariposa"), on getting up to speak in the California Legislature, and essaying several times without much effect, was greeted with shouts of "Git out. Oh! git out." They mistook their man, however, for, as one of his supporters remarked before his election, "He ain't much on the speak, but jist git him mad once, and he'll give 'em fits." "Look ye here, gentlemen," he remarked, cocking a Derringer pistol, "ye may holler 'Git out, git out' as long as God'll let ye, but my speech is already begun, and the next man who shouts 'Git out' in the house will bring to his ears the ominous click of small arms. What is it the gentlemen wish, and what would they have? Is my life so dear, or my peace so sweet, that it must be purchased at the expense of incapacitating a few of ye for military service? No, sir-ee! I know not what course others would take, but as for me, I will finish my speech or there'll be a dead Senator found round these premises in about fifteen seconds by the clock." He was allowed to finish at his leisure.
The late Dr. Henry, formerly Surveyor-General of Washington Territory, among the many genial stories he used to tell, and which still keep his memory green, had one at the expense of his territorial legislature. A hotel keeper in one of the fashionable towns in the Eastern States used to stand at the head of the table and read out the bill of fare in what the elocution teachers call a "clear articulate voice," though there was a printed carte on the table. This irritated his aristocratic customers until at last one said, "Say, Cap, why do you read out the bill of fare? Do you think we can't read?" "Oh, gentlemen," was the reply, "you will excuse me, I hope. It is solely the force of habit. I once kept a ho-tel in Washington Territory, and most of the legislators boarded with me, and I'm blessed if half o' them could read or write!"
It is a matter of history that when the convention met to form a constitution for California, and on the usual preamble being read, "That all men should be judged by a jury of their peers," an Oregonian, who happened to be a delegate, moved, to the great amusement of the other members, that the word "peers" should be struck out: "This warn't a mon-ar-chy--there warn't no peers in this here state!"
Disgraceful scenes of drunkenness are sometimes seen in these legislatures, but in this they do not stand alone. One of the California members of the United States Senate is distinguished as the "sober senator," such a virtue being rather uncommon in the present congressmen from that state. Corruption in these state legislatures prevails to a frightful extent, and is so open that newspapers will even have the hardihood to give a list of the sums paid to each senator for his vote. In the more refined states official embezzlements are styled "pickings," but in the Far West and Pacific states plain English suffices, and they are well known as "stealings." More than once prominent government officials have asked me, while in social intercourse, how much salary I got for such an office. I would tell them. "Wal," would be the reply, "that ain't much for this country, but of course you have got your little stealings?" I was naturally rather inclined to resent the insinuation of robbing my government or employers of any sort, until they would assure me that they meant no harm. It was the regular thing here, everybody did it. "Why, sir, do you think I can support my family on fifteen hundred dollars a year in greenbacks at sixty cents to the dollar, or that I would come up to this one-horse place after having a practice as a lawyer in Fresno of ten thousand dollars a year, for that? I guess not!" All the members of these legislatures are paid, and get, also, a certain mileage, or traveling expenses, from their homes to the seat of government. This recompense, or per diem, as they call it, varies from about ten dollars to fifteen dollars a day, and is generally paid in the Pacific States in gold. The mileage is about twenty-five cents a mile. Now this to a congressman traveling from Washington Territory, Idaho, Oregon or California, comes up to a very round sum, and, indeed, is looked upon as their principal pay, always exclusive of the little "stealings" formerly mentioned. The local legislatures are limited by the state constitution to a sitting of so many days (and it would be well if the British colonial ones were under the same rule, for their unpaid twaddle is endless), and of course their pay only extends over that period. Sometimes they will finish their work in a much less time than the law allows for their sitting, but they have no notion rising while their pay is going on. When not engaged in the ante-rooms of the senate hall in playing "monte," "cut-throat poker," "euchre," or "seven up," they can pass the time in introducing "bogus," or sham bills, generally a divorce for some of their own number, or a rule to show why another should not change his name, the wit and decency of which, I am told, are very much in the style of an institution once presided over in London by Chief Baron Nicholson. When Oregon was poor and humble, her rough names for her rivers and towns were good enough for them, but when she got rich a bill was gravely introduced to change these names. "Rogue River" was to be called "Gold River," gold dust then being found on its banks, and so forth. It would probably have passed, had not another supplemental bill been introduced, which provided that "Jump-off Joe" should be called "Walk-along-Joseph"; that "Greaser's Camp" should be called "The Halls of Montezuma"; that "Shirt Tail Bar" should be styled "Corazza Beach," and so on. This fairly laughed the whole proposal out of court; though, indeed, on the official map an attempt was made to keep up some of these elegant appellations, and to Indianize the more outrageous of the names. In the way of legislative joking, it is a well-known fact that when a bill was introduced into the Georgia legislature to lay a tax of ten dollars a head upon all donkeys, a jocular member proposed to amend it so as to include "lawyers and doctors," which amendment was passed amid loud applause. Various attempt have been made to repeal the clause, but in vain, and to this day a tax of ten dollars is levied upon "all jackasses, lawyers, and doctors"!
In the Far West, as elsewhere, there are legislators who are not too much in earnest. I recommend to some of our present candidates for British suffrages the following noble close to a Far Western election address: "Gentlemen," said the candidate, after having given his sentiments on the "constitootion," the "Monroe doctrine," and such like topics, "gentlemen," and he put his hand on the region of his heart, "these are my sentiments, the sentiments, gentlemen, of an honest man--ay, an honest politician, but, gentlemen and fellow citizens, ef they don't suit you, they ken be altered!"
To appear a "plain sort of a man" on these electioneering tours is quite as necessary as the Old World baby kissing and shaking hands with the washed men provided by your agent are with us. I know a Western senator who keeps what he calls his stumping suit--hodden grey, well worn but whole; shoes patched, but brightly polished; a shirt spotlessly clean, but frayed at the edges of the seams; and a hat which has seen better days, but in it well-brushed condition quite keeps up the air its owner is striving to assume--humble but honest. After a campaign is over, the suit is carefully put aside until another election in which its owner is interested. The worthy Senator (who is rather a dandy than otherwise) has filled every office from Governor to "Hog Reeve," and considers that his suit of Humble but Honest won him many a vote. "Money wouldn't buy it," he told me; "it ain't for sale no how."
It is commonly supposed that General Fremont lost his election out West by dividing his hair down the middle. The Honorable Samuel M. has often assured me that on his first candidature for office in Oregon Territory, certain of the baser sort "voted agin' him 'cause of his puttin' on airs, in respect of wearing a white shirt, or, as they irreverently styled it, a 'boiled rag.'"
I have put the State in the Far West before the Church; for the Church there is of the future, although every place is not like Josephine County, where I was told, with a sort of depraved pride, "There ain't nary preacher nor meetin' house in this yer county, cap'n."
In other places, where the preacher gets a footing, it is sometimes easier to get a "meetin' house" full than to get wherewith to support the laborer who is nowhere in the world more "worthy of his hire." A preacher in a frontier settlement has been collecting money for some church object. There were still some twenty dollars wanting, and after vain efforts to make up the deficiency, he plainly intimated, as he locked the church door one day after session, that he intended to have that said twenty dollars before any of them left the house. At the same time he set the example by tossing five dollars on the table. Another put down a dollar, another a quarter of a dollar, a fourth half a dollar, and so on. The parson read out every now and then the state of the funds: "Thar's seven and a half, my friends." "Thar's nine and a quarter." "Ten and six bits are all that are in the hat, friends and Christian brethren." Slowly it mounted up. "Twelve and a half." "Fourteen." "Fifteen." "Sixteen and three bits," and so on until it stuck at nineteen dollars and a half. "It only wants fifty cents, friends, to make up the amount. Will nobody make it up?" Everybody had subscribed, and not a cent more was forthcoming. Silence reigned, and how long it might have lasted it was difficult to say, had not a half dollar been tossed through the open window, and a rough explanatory voice shouted, "Here, parson, there's yer money; let out my gal. I'm about tired of waitin' on her!"
The Long Tom Creek region in Oregon is settled by a very rough lot of people, mostly from Missouri. They are (even in Oregon) a proverb for the uncouth character of their manners, and it was thought quite a missionary enterprise when a devoted young clergyman from "the States" came and settled among them. Church was a novelty with them. It reminded them of old times "in the States." They built a little church in the middle of a broad prairie, and for a time it was crowded every Sunday. The backwoodsmen and their families used to come to church in wagons and on horseback. The men had on fringed buckskin breeches and moccasins of Indian manufacture, and the head covered with coonskin caps, with the tail hanging in the form of a tassel behind. They would tie their horse up to the long "hitchin' post" in front of the church, and always brought their rifles to church with them, handy for any "varmints" which might cross their path going and coming. It so happened one warm Sunday that the church door was opened, and a backwoodsman who happened to be near it was gazing vacantly out on the prairie in front. Suddenly he spied a deer, close by, quietly grazing. Here was a chance! Slowly he took his rifle from the corner of his pew and crept out. His action was observed, and one after another followed, until nobody but a lame old man was left. By this time the deer was ambling over the prairie, and the whole congregation of men yelling and galloping in pursuit. Preaching was out of the question, for even the women and children were as eager as the men, watching the chase halfway over the prairie. The old man and the preacher stood alone together at the door of the church. The poor clergyman, in despair for the souls of his people, and thinking that he would have a sympathizer in the old man, who alone had not joined in the chase, sighingly said, "Lost, lost!' "Devil a bit o't, sir; devil a bit o't, they'll ketch it. By jingo, they've plunged it! I know'd they would!" The young minister received a haunch, and brought the service to a close; but he was out of his element, and soon "went East" again, where he is in the habit of remarking, with unnecessary acrimony, that "the Oregonians are a very careless people in heavenly matters."
In the same part of the country, at a place called Candle Bridge, I saw a deacon preach. His sermon was not very remarkable for vigor, but I can vouch for it that his squirting of tobacco juice over the pulpit rails was most forcible! I had noticed that for some seats next [to] the reading desk the pews were unoccupied, though other parts of the church were crowded. After what I had witnessed, I had no difficulty in accounting for the indisposition to sit under him too immediately. If the parson is sometimes rough, so is the parishioners! At church in a little backwoods settlement most of the congregation were asleep. Suddenly a half tipsy fellow made an apple bump on the bald head of one of the sleepers. The preacher stopped and gave the offender an interrogative stare. "Bile ahead, parson! Bile ahead! I'll keep 'im awake!" was the ready explanation.
The following incident was I think been told before, but still it is so characteristic that it is worth repeating. In California a miner had died in a mountain digging, and, being much respected, his acquaintance resolves to give him a "square funeral" instead of putting the body in the usual way in a roughly made hole, and saying by the way of service to the dead, "thar goes another bully boy, under?" They sought the services of a miner, who bore the reputation of having at one time of his career been "a powerful preacher in the States." And then, Far Western fashion, all knelt around the grave while the extemporized parson delivered a prodigiously long prayer. The miners, tired of this unaccustomed opiate, to while away the time began fingering the earth, digger fashion, about the grave. Gradually looks were exchanged; whispering increased, until it became loud enough to attract the attention of their parson. He opened his eyes and stared at the whispering miners. "What is it, boys?" Then, as suddenly his eyes lighted on sparkling scales of gold, he shouted, "Gold, by Jingo! and the richest kind o' diggin's--the congregation's dismissed!" Instantly every man began to prospect the new digging, our clerical friend not being the least active of the number. The body had to be removed and buried elsewhere, but the memory of the incident still lives in the name of the locality, for "Dead Man's Gulch" became one of the richest localities in California.--All the Year Round.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 25, 1868, page 4
In far-western "society" it is no longer reputable to be known as a professional gambler, yet men who remember the days when everybody played will be apt to look lightly upon the vice. It is not uncommon, therefore, to see merchants (especially American) having a special game of "cutthroat monte," "euchre," or "poker," with piles of gold before them. In the mountain towns it is still worse, and the anterooms of the Nevada and California legislators used to be a perfect carnival of gambling in the evenings, and even during the day, when they were not intent on gambling and the widespread habit of betting show through many of the slang phrases of general use on the coast. Continually you will hear men, and even women and children sometimes, adding, after some positive assertion, "You bet," or "You bet yer life," or "You bet yer bones," while to "bet yer boots" is confirmation strong as holy writ--in the mines, at least. A miner is always particular about his "butes," their form and durability, and they are a common subject of conversation in the places where diggers most do congregate. Again, nobody in the Northwest will have any hesitation in telling you that such and such a statement is "played out," when he means to convey an imputation that you are somewhat beside the truth, or that the proposals you may be making to him are not suitable to his ideas of things right and fitting. If he further informs you that "this has been played out since '49," he means that since the first colonization of the Pacific coast by "smart men," such a thing was never believed in: 1849 being the year of the commencement of the California gold digging.
Excerpt, Flag of Our Union, December 12, 1868, page 796
Couldn't Understand Each Other's Lingo.
At an examination of a raw woodchopper from the mountains, in one of the Nevada criminal courts, the uncouth slang of the western forests came into curious collision with the "hifalutin" language of the western bar:
Lawyer (blandly)--Mr. G., was it your opinion, on your first interview with Mr. Roach after he was shot, that some of the vital tissues in the abdominal region had been irremediably injured?
"Sir?" replied the witness, gasping for breath and scratching his head in ludicrous perplexity.
Lawyer--Please state to the court your conclusions in regard to the wounds of Mr. Roach on your first interview.
Witness--I kalkerlated his goose was about cooked.
Lawyer--Do you mean by that, that you considered his condition as extremely critical?
Witness--Well, I made up my mind the fust I seen him that he was bound to peg out.
Lawyer--Use a little plainer language, Mr. G. What shall we infer from your expression of "pegging out"?
Witness--I mean that I thought he'd pass in his checks [in] less'n a week.
Lawyer (impatiently)--What did you tell Roach about his chances of recovery?
Witness--I told him that I thought they'd got the drop on him this time.
Lawyer (very short)--Did you think Roach would live or die of his wounds at your first visit?
Witness (indignantly)--I told yer I thought he was bound to go up, when yer first asked me.
Lawyer--That will do, Mr. G.; take your seat.
The Youth's Companion, April 7, 1870, page 112
Letter from The Dalles.
[James] Nesmith was the next called out. After being assisted to the table he commenced his harangue. . . . He said that he was a candidate for the United States Senate, and was going to make the fight for that position, though he said both ends of the State were against him; that if the damned Abolitionists, or subsidized Democrats, either, had anything to say about him that they had not said, he wanted them to say it now. But he would give the Democrats warning that he was not going to buy his way to the Senate this time, and, said he, with emphasis, "I have not got any money to do it with, and, by God, if I had, I would not pay a damned cent of it to buy votes." This will serve as a specimen of his profanity. His blackguardism was too foul to print. It was the foulest, dirtiest thing I ever heard for a speech. His friends apologize for it by saying he was drunk, which the same it was plain to behold. But his speech was well suited to his crowd, and was vociferously applauded.
Excerpt, Oregonian, April 12, 1872, page 2
There is that in western language which is significant of peculiarity
in western life. Western people are much in the habit of using words in
odd and unexpected ways, and of instituting grotesque comparison, and
of indulging in picturesque expressions. They indulge in a
sort of wild freedom of speech which seems very truly to
harmonize with the freedom of life belonging to a new country. For
example, they prefer to call whiskey "corn juice," because therein is
the conception of the "make" of the article. And when they go further
and call it "chain lightning" they very vividly set forth the style of
its working. They say of a man whose pretensions have been exposed, or
who has egregiously failed in carrying out his plans, that he has
"flatted out." Then a man of staunch character is not only "there," but
further, and especially, he is so safe that "he will do to tie to."
The Omaha Bee notes some of the peculiarities of speech which are common in the western part of our continent. The mountaineer, after years of western life, finds himself lost in an eastern metropolis, and fails to meet his engagement on prompt time, but is not at a loss to give a decided reason for his delay, because of "getting lost among the box cañons." Terse and pointed remarks, like that of the man who said: "I did not fight him but had he come a step further the doctors would have thought when they dissected him that they had struck a new lead mine," are quite common among miners. How expressive are these sayings! "He is a gashed vein and has pinched;" "He shows well on the surface, but there is nothing in his lower levels;" or, "He don't assay worth anything." He who lacks courage is, in western parlance, devoid of "grit," and has no "sand." Men who roughed it in the early days on the Pacific Coast are called "oldtimers," and when they die it is not uncommon for their associates to speak of their taking off as their having "passed in their checks." Those who have toiled through the snow and braved the dangers of crossing great mountain ridges have coined a style of expression upon the death of an old friend which to them is fuller of meaning than the plainsman can imagine--"He has gone over the range." Each state and territory on the Pacific Slope has its peculiar phrases, and there are many common to all.
Fort Wayne [Indiana] Daily Gazette, August 24, 1881, page 6
How a Man Became Wealthy
Brooklyn Eagle.--A little man was introduced to the members of the Mining Stock Exchange, in New York, the other day, and from the prompt and effectual way in which he operated, it was apparent that he was immensely wealthy.
"You have been out in the mines, I hear," said one of a group of admirers, who, though a New Yorker, had established a reputation for familiarity with far western slang.
"Yes," responded the little man, quietly; "I spent some time in the carbonate region."
"Pretty old hand at dips and angles, I take it," observed the questioner, jocularly.
"I've heard tell of 'em," replied the little man.
"Rocked the cradle for yellow a good many time, eh?" continued the bore, with an I'll-fetch-him-out wink at the crowd.
"No. They don't cradle now, they crush," said the little man, uneasily.
"Hit it hard on a spur and jerk rock for the stump; that's they way they do it?"
"They take out the quartz and send it to the mill," replied the man.
"Wouldn't you like to go and flood the lower level?" asked the amateur miner. "Want something to rinse the valves?"
The little man consented, and the crowd adjourned for wine.
"How'd you hook onto the dust, grubstake or straight prospect?" inquired the bore after the party had irrigated.
"I grubstaked until I lost most of my money," said the little man nervously.
"I see. Then scanned for a shine on your own sleeve."
"No. The fact is, gentlemen, I'm not a miner, and never had an interest in a shaft."
"How'd you accumulate the buckskins, if I may ask?" pursued the bore, somewhat amazed.
"It was this way: Some tenderfoot had smiled on a locket, and when they came to roach for corn at the settle I was close to the bung. They were oiled and I had some split tickets. I gave them the circulars, and when the wind shifted, the best they could languish under was three cooks and a couple. Somehow I got hold of the hair and let into the pull with two doughfaces and three sprats. I let go a sprat and caught the advertisement. They doubled on me steadily till they reached the lingering speck, and then I laid down and softened on the starlight. That's the way I made my money. Good day, gentlemen."
"How was it?" chorused the crowd, turning to the bore for explanation.
"I think he means that they died and left him their property," replied the domestic miner.
But he didn't. He meant that three flats had struck it rich, and on a deal with a safety pack he had held four aces against a queen full and won all the money in the outfit.
To crystallize it, gentle reader, he was a skin gambler.
The Decatur [Illinois] Daily Review, August 30, 1881, page 3
stated that a Gold Hill merchant became so full of political enthusiasm
his hurry to fire a salute in honor of his favorite candidates the
off suddenly and demoralized his dog's hind leg.
The genuine westerner is as prolific in the use of slang as Oliver Twist. The common expression of acquiescence is "You bet." The term is also used to answer in the affirmative a question put. To be beaten, circumvented, overreached or distanced in any way is to "get left." To succeed in any undertaking, or to make a hit, the exhibition of any remarkable qualification is to "get there." To take advantage of opportunities, or to ally oneself in undertakings of any sort, is to "catch on." To find out any new thing, to clear up a mystery or concealment, is to "get onto it." A man who makes permanent settlement, or substantial improvements, is referred to as one who has "come to stay." Business activity, growth and extension of trade or manufactures of a town are referred to as a "boom." A good thing of any kind is referred to as a "bonanza." Every energetic, active and efficient man is a "rustler."
The word "kick" is probably used more than any other and serves a variety of purposes. If one objects, he "kicks." If he criticizes, no matter how fairly, he "kicks." If he does any of these things more than once, he is a "kicker." He must acquiesce always in what is said or done or else he is a "kicker" and a "kicker" is almost despised no matter how conscientious he may be or how much wisdom there is in his objections--The Northwest.
Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, November 29, 1884, page 1
Father Conrardy Explains.
"The Catholic Sentinel did not deny the priest's profanity." I deny it most solemnly. I "never" said "d----d Indians," and if I said it, my long stay amongst them, money or no money, is the best proof I can give. That being sometimes discouraged, I said, "I wish the Indians will catch the smallpox." This I do not deny; but even if I had said "d----d Indians," what of it? When Indian agents, as I can testify, swear many times a day, that's nothing.The Great American Language.
Excerpt, Oregonian, December 12, 1886, page 5
Col. McLeod, although not a bad man at heart, uses very rough language in his intercourse with his family. On returning to his home from his place of business a few days ago he found his wife very much excited over the outrageous conduct of a tramp, who, being dissatisfied with the food given him by Mrs. McLeod, had abused her in a most outrageous manner.
"Johnny," said Col. McLeod to his ten-year-old son, "when you heard that cowardly scoundrel abusing your mother why didn't you run to the store quick and let me know? Didn't you hear?"
"Yes, Pa. I was in the stable and heard what he said about the victuals Ma gave him, and how he abused her, but--"
"I thought it was you scolding Ma. He used the same words you do when the dinner don't suit you. I didn't think anybody else would dare to talk to Ma that way."
Redding (California) Free Press, November 26, 1887, page 4
From The Cornhill Magazine.
. . . you must "go west, young man," to hear the dulcet notes of the native tongue in all its primitive and unadulterated impurity. There every phrase is sweetly redolent of cowboys and miners, of derringers and bowies, of gold and silver, of saloons and gambling hells, and monte and poker, of bloodshed and robbery, of cruel sports and cruel lustfulness. It is there that one meets (on paper only) with the "eighteen-carat desperado," who has "struck it rich" on the Pikes or in the ranches, and is popularly known as "a bad crowd generally," with a reputation for having made more prominent citizens "hand in their checks" and "take a through ticket to a better world," than any other man in Calaveras County. It is there that "a misunderstanding about a mule" leads to a little difference of opinion with six-shooters, which results at least in a coroner's inquest, with the modest verdict "Died from the effects of having called Washington Wesley Smithers a liar." Wherever you go "prospecting around" you hear young ladies "working the slang racket" to an extent that positively appalls the timid soul from beyond the Atlantic. In appearance, indeed these charming creatures are all that could be desired; they have elegant features, appropriately crowned by a most expensive bang; they can fix themselves up lovely for dinner; they are not unaccomplished, for they paw the ivories and warble many warbs; and they freely mash the gentlemen of their acquaintance, who are often compelled to admit with a regretful sigh that the ladies hold the right bower over them every time, anyhow. And yet to the too fastidious Britannic taste these fair charmers seem a trifle too much addicted to going their pile, excessively devoted to the use of candy, and unnecessarily given to the free employment of possibly harmless but unlovely expletives.
The "railroad towns" on the "Sunset Route" are the very places to hear the American tongue, as she is spoke, professed in all her perfection and beauty. A conversation between the drummer who operates the section and his friend the gentleman who runs the saloon at one of these wayside stopping places would be quite enough to open the eyes of Dr. Murray to the inadequate preparations of the Philological Society for their new dictionary now in progress. I doubt whether the phrase "To go heeled" will occur at all in that valuable treasury of the English language. I tremble for the chances of the verb "To excursh." I shall look with anxiety, s.v. "Check," for any reference to checking a fellow citizen through to the Happy Land, an operation ordinarily performed, as I learn on credible authority, with a common derringer or a Georgia bowie. Even so simple a phrase as "fooling around" or "waltzing in" may possibly fail to receive due notice at the hands of an effete "Europian" syndicate.
Originally, of course, this rich tongue of the wild West, decked out as it is with a barbaric profusion of California gold and Nevada silver, mineral oaths and ranching blasphemies, was confined entirely to its native Pikes, or straggled eastward slowly by the Santa Fe trail and Wells and Fargo's express, in the old days before the Pacific Railroad brought Frisco and the Saints into close communication with the Bay State and the Empire City. But, in America, literature (in dime editions) gets rapidly and widely diffused; and when "The Jumping Frog" and "The Luck of Roaring Camp" had once familiarized the eastern world with the polished dialect of the leads, the strikes, the gulches, and the boundless prairies, the lisping babes of Massachusetts and Connecticut began at once to prattle sweetly in the dulcet argentine tones of Buffalo Bill and the Silverado squatters. Artless childhood responded "You bet" to the solemn remonstrances of reverend age; spectacled youth and beauty (home from Vassar College) offered to "go you one better" in the common intercourse of conversation, or suggested in the intervals of the mazy dance that its partner should stop cavorting around like this, and just take a turn or two about the barn in peace and quietness.
Three main elements make up this peculiar western dialect, which is now so rapidly spreading eastward, and even in part crossing the Atlantic, side by side with the canned meats, the Colorado beetles (called potato bugs in their native land), and the dudes and mashers of go-ahead American civilization. The first and oldest is the mining element--the Red Gulch stratum of etymology--which "pans out" and "strikes it rich" in the familiar pages of far western literature. The second, almost coeval with the first, is the gambling element--the poker saloon stratum--derived from the practice of Monte Joe and his confrères in the hells of San Francisco and Buttes City; a sordid dialect, instinct with the mean chances of the vile trade; a dialect in which men go through life marking the king, and holding the left bower, and passing the deal, and nicking the lady, and otherwise at every turn of fate imperiling their last red cent and their bottom dollar with reckless good humor. The third, the newest and most offensive of all, is the cowboy element--the snorting jew's-harp stratum--that profane language of the impetuous galoots, who corral horses and round up cattle in the dense chaparral or on the prairie ranches. There, the gentle tiger is freely bucked, and the scattered fragments of the much-broken third commandment darken the air with loathsome accompaniments. From these three wells of English most defiled the rest of America draws too plentifully; cultivated men and women in the East are not ashamed to interlard their conversation with colloquial gems, derived direct from the reeking pandemoniums of vice, folly and greed in the newest belt of advancing civilization. In those outpost towns of saloons and gambling hells on the farthest frontier of human society, woman is seldom present save in her worst and foulest avatar. The language which springs up among the crowd of unrestrained gamesters, and speculators, and prospectors, and barmen, and shameless courtesans, and Chinese cheap labor, not unleavened with criminals and murderers of the deepest dye, is just what might be expected from such hideous conditions.
By a vast effort I have succeeded in keeping profanity fairly well out of this article. The dialect gains thereby in sweetness and light, but decidedly loses in truthfulness to life and picturesqueness of vocabulary. American eloquence, indeed, is "frequent and free." In the West, especially, a few stray expletives enliven every verb and qualify every "durned" substantive. I omit them here, as not necessarily intended for publication, but proffered (as the lord chancellor "dammed hisself in confidence") merely as a guarantee of good faith.
Abridged, Littrell's Living Age, November 3, 1888, page 298
The Silent Teamster.
The teamster, as one of the types of the frontier, is seldom introduced in print without allusions to his ingenious and picturesque profanity; whereas it is his silence, rather than his utterances, that gives him, among his brethren of the way, almost the distinction of a species.
He is not unpicturesque; he has every claim that hardship can give to popular sympathy; yet, even to the most inexperienced imagination, he pursues his way in silence along those fateful roads, the names of which will soon be legendary. As a type he was evolved by these roads to meet their exigencies. He was known on the great Santa Fe Trail, on the old Oregon Trail, on all the historic pathways that have carried westward the story of a restless and a determined people. The railroads have driven him from the main lines of travel; he is now merely the link between them and scattered settlements difficult of access. When the systems of "feeders" to the main track are completed his work will be done. He will have left no record among songs of the people or lyrics of the way, and in fiction, oddly enough, this most enduring and silent of beings will survive--through the immortal rhetoric of his biographers--as one whose breath is heavy with curses.--Mary Hallock Foote in Century.
Abridged, Mitchell (South Dakota) Sunday Republican, July 28, 1889, page 2
Writing Flash Literature
I met Gerald Carleton, the story writer, coming out of Frank Leslie's office yesterday, and we had quite a long chat.
Excerpt, San Antonio [Texas] Daily Light, August 11, 1890, page 11
Our Pet Profanity.
Many well-known men who use dash words have recently adopted the plan invented by Rev. Waldo Messaros, pastor of the West Twenty-Fifth Street Baptist Church. Mr. Messaros has no patent upon the plan, and he invites all citizens to make use of it. When Mr. Messaros steps on a tack in his bare feet he remarks in a loud tone, "Beefsteak and butter!" "Ham and eggs!" "A plate of ice cream!" By the time he has made these few remarks and pulled the tack out of his foot, his anger has vanished. "There is no necessity of swearing under the circumstances," said Mr. Messaros. "Just as much satisfaction is obtained by saying 'pork and beans' as in emitting a string of swear words." Ex-Mayor Grace and Henry Clews are among the gentlemen who have adopted Mr. Messaro's plan. Mayor Grant sometimes exclaims "Holy smoke!" when his feelings are stirred. "Darn it all!" is the way in which Controller Myers relieves his feelings. President J. Edward Simmons of the Fourth National Bank uses an unusually long expletive. "Great Scott and General Jackson!" he is able to exclaim when a depositor asks to be permitted to overdraw his account. D. O. Mills ejaculates "Mercy me!" when a tenant of the great Mills Building requests him to reduce the rent. "Shiver my toplights!" is what Commodore Elbridge T. Gerry says when matters are not running just as he wants them. "I'll be hornswoggled!" is the rural-like remark of James R. Keene when somebody started to hammer down Sugar Trust. "Blazes!" remarks Senator Evarts, when he finds that somebody has walked off with his old hat and left a new tile in its place. "By rats!" is the queer expletive of Colonel Dan Lamont. When Manager I. M. Hill wishes to emphasize a statement he says 'It's so by hickory."
Ashland Tidings, October 3, 1890, page 4
Women never swear, but when a man steps on the hem of her dress and ruins a couple of yards of expensive trimming, the thoughts which pass through her mind afford the devil as much amusement as though she had let out a string of oaths a mile [and] a half long.
As we were about to remark: How do you like the appearance of the first page of The Mail? In the vernacular peculiar to this immediate vicinity, isn't that new heading "out of sight"?
Editorial, Medford Mail, February 10, 1893, page 2
believe the average Butte Creeker has the greatest assortment of
profanity in store for present use when he goes to to plow sticky soil,
of any people we ever heard--trying to do the matter justice is a
trying ordeal. We say, boys, use kind and persuasive words, they will
be just as effective.
Slang of the Western Plains.
There is a more soldierly frankness, a greater freedom, less restraint, less respect for law and order, in the West than in the East; and this may be a reason why American slang is superior to British and to French.
. . . when we find a western writer describing the effect of tanglefoot whiskey, the adjective explains itself, and is justified at once. And we discover immediately the daringly condensed metaphor in the sign, "Don't monkey with the buzz saw"; the picturesqueness of the word buzz saw and its fitness for service are visible as at a glance. So we understand the phrase readily and appreciate its force when we read the story of "Buck Fanshaw's Funeral," and are told "that he never went back on his mother," or when we hear the defender of "Banty Tim" declare that
"Ef one of you teches the boyTo wrestle one's hash is not an elegant expression, one must admit, and it is not likely to be adopted into the literary language, but it is forcible at least, and not stupid. To go back on, however, bids fair to take its place in our speech as a phrase at once useful and vigorous.
He'll wrestle his hash tonight in hell,
Or my name is not Tilman Joe."
From the wide and windswept plains of the West came blizzard, and although it has been suggested that the word is a survival from some local British dialect, the West still deserves the credit of having rescued it from desuetude. From the logging camps of the Northwest came boom, an old word again, but with a new meaning, which the language promptly accepted. From still further West came the use of sand, to indicate staying power, backbone--what New England knows as grit, and old England as pluck (a far less expressive word). From the Southwest came cinch, from the tightening of the girths of the pack mules, and so by extension indicating a grasp of anything so firm that it cannot get away.--Harper's Magazine.
Excerpt, Ohio Farmer, July 13, 1893, page 35
All the Local News.The use of vulgar, obscene language on the streets is at its best a most degrading habit but when in the presence of ladies it becomes more revolting, and a person of more refined tastes is naturally inclined to doubt the integrity of our laws which are supposed to prohibit such language. The incident which calls out the above is cited in a few words: Last week three young men from Jacksonville came to Medford and upon their return when meeting some ladies upon the streets addressed language to them of a most insulting nature, and if repeated they will need to pray before the courts for leniency.
Medford Mail, December 1, 1893, page 5
Bishop Whipple's Story
How It Was Received by an Ecclesiastical Audience in England.Steubenville [Ohio] Herald, November 8, 1897, page 4
St. Paul Pioneer Press:--Perhaps no American clergyman is held in higher esteem among Englishmen who know him than Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, of Minnesota. He has paid frequent visits to conferences and other gatherings of the established church in England. During the recent Lambeth conference he preached in Westminster Abbey, and a tremendous audience went to hear him. But the bishop is fully as popular as a good storyteller. In the latter capacity he has done effective missionary work in converting the British mind to an understanding and appreciation of American humor.
Before the bishop had succeeded in arousing this understanding, however, he met with several experiences which would have been embarrassing had not the narrator been gifted with irrepressible good humor. The bishop on one occasion told a story the point of which was overlooked by his stolid English audience.
"This is a story," said the bishop, "of the western frontier, and illustrates the brevity of pioneer speech. Years ago I had charge of the extreme western line of civilization, and saw a great deal of wild frontier life. At that time every man carried firearms on his person and kept a rifle or pistol within easy reach of his bed at night. One night one of the coolest and most courageous men on the frontier was sleeping, as was his custom, with his rifle lying beside him on the bed. He had the reputation of being a dead shot, and it was well known that no one had any chance when Dick once got the drop on him."
"Will you explain what 'drop' means in that queer western usage?" asked a sedate bishop.
"Why, it means," said Bishop Whipple, "that one man has another covered by his gun--pistol, I mean."
"You made use of the word 'gun,' inadvertently, of course, for pistol. Is it commonly used in--ah--the states?"
"Not at all," replied the Minnesotan. "We say 'pistol,' but the people in the West sometimes prefer the terser expression 'gun'."
"And, excuse me," said another dignitary at the end of the table, "but do you mean by 'dead shot' that the man you get the 'drop' on with your 'gun' is equal to a dead man?"
"Precisely," said Bishop Whipple.
"Well, as I was about to remark, Dick was awakened one night by a noise at his window. Slowly turning his face toward the noise, so as to not give any warning to any possible enemy there, he saw a man's head and shoulders framed in the open window. Dick, still as motionless as a serpent, reached for his rifle. He raised it slowly under his own body until the barrel was in line with the intruder's head. Dick always made sure of this point, and his adversary was directly in front of his weapon before using any palaver. He hated so to waste ammunition."
"And pray, what is 'palaver'?" asked a bishop who had not heard the same word as used by the English themselves in Africa.
"Oh, 'palaver' means talk--idle words.
"As soon as Dick felt that he had the drop on his visitor he sang out:
"The robber looked up hastily, saw instantly that the dead shot had him covered with the rifle, and replied coolly:
"'You bet!' and dropped to the ground and disappeared."
Not a mitered head lost its dignity by appreciating the humor of the story. There was a painful silence for a moment. Then one member of the hierarchy said:
"What does 'git' mean, bishop?"
"Why, 'git' is American for 'get,' and means 'go away,' 'be off.' "
"Ah, I see," replied the Englishman.
Then another Britisher asked:
"And what, pray, does 'you bet' mean?"
"That," said Bishop Whipple with a smile, "is a slang phrase, meaning 'of course' or that the proposition is so sure that you can bet on it."
"Ah, very clevah, indeed," said another Anglican, "but what queer words you Americans make use of! Do you all talk that way?"
Marshal Johnson deserves a chromo. If the city council don't put it up, The Monitor-Miner will. Several improvements are observable in the morals of Medford, not the least of which is the cessation of the loudmouthed swearing of certain of the hoodlum element--boys and men. It has formerly been a matter of general occurrence to hear a lot of the boys engaged in playing ball or some other sport shoot off their "bazoos" with obscenity or profanity until decent people would want to either stop their ears or walk away. Business men of the town have been heard to rip out oaths and obscenity on the street that would have put them into the "cooler" of a decent town--that is, if a decent town has such a thing. Marshal Johnson has given the men of the baser sort to understand that loudmouthed profanity must be stopped, and it is to be hoped that he will carry it out to the letter of the law. There are still other improvements that might be made in the morals of the town without interfering with anybody's rights. Let the good work go on.
Medford Monitor-Miner, October 13, 1898, page 2
Fifty years ago oratory was the great and winning gift whereby to obtain high station. Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Corwin and others gained their eminence and retained their hold upon the people largely through their oratorical ability. Even as late as Lincoln's day no other capacity was equal to the gift of extraordinarily excellent speech, without which he would never have been president, or risen to eminence. Debating societies flourished in every backwoods school district, and the boy who could talk most fluently was the one pointed out as the inheritor of political honors. In Congress the best speaker was the real leader, and the only great senators were those who could make great speeches. All this is changed, and the orator is generally a bore. The silent man, who plots and logrolls and bargains and counts noses, is the power in legislation. The greatest of speeches in Congress scarcely ever changes a vote on an important measure, and the votes turned by the best campaign orators are few and far between. The practical politician has superseded the orator. In this change the newspaper has played an important part. Voters read the news, and are about as well informed on public questions as the campaign orators or average congressman. It is an era of writing and reading, rather than of talking and listening.
Medford Mail, July 5, 1901, page 2
Shorty Dodge and Jack Fredenburg, both draymen, exchanged the compliments of the season last Sunday. Monday morning, at the instance of Fredenburg, Dodge was arrested and brought before Recorder York charged with using obscene language. He was fined $5, which was paid. Shorty avers that both himself and Jack called each other the same kind of a gentleman.
"City Happenings," Medford Mail, January 31, 1902, page 7
While Terry's Uncle Tom's Cabin Company was giving its performance in the opera house last Friday evening, Jack Loar became excited in an argument with some of the young men who occupy the back seats in the opera house, and used some rather expressive language. Policeman Fredenberg arrested him, and he gave bail for his appearance before Recorder York the next morning. He was fined $2.50. This is a habit that is practiced entirely too freely among the youths of this city, and a few more of these cases will no doubt break them of this obnoxious and disturbing habit. "City Happenings," Medford Mail, March 7, 1902, page 7
[C. L.] Hammersley is a smooth talker and gets familiar on short acquaintance. He is a pleasant, good-natured fellow and knows everybody by their given names.
"Circuit Court in Session," Jacksonville Post, December 21, 1907, page 7
. . . his early education had been sadly neglected, and he did not know what a relief there was in a few cuss words.
James H. Twogood, "The Art of Driving, As Viewed by an Old Timer of the Plains," Boise, Idaho Evening Capital News, January 18, 1908, page 12
[Fifty years ago the] roads were an abomination and doubled the tasks of the missionary and itinerant preacher in their efforts to diminish the use of spectacular language that was thought not to be orthodox.
C. B. Watson, "Jacksonville, 50 Years Ago," Medford Mail Tribune, September 6, 1920, page 4
Being somewhat garrulous himself, Mr. Davis theorizes about the Oregonian addiction to loquacity. "One thing that had kept those mountain people from developing any sort of community life," he says, "was the fear that they would all talk one another to death the first time they got together."
John Chamberlain, "Books of the Times," book review Honey in the Horn by H. L. Davis, New York Times, August 22, 1935, page 13
Last revised April 8, 2013