Dictionary of the American West

Dictionary of the American West

by Win Blevins

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Did you ever need to spell “dogie” (as in, get-along-little), or need to know what a “sakey” is? This is the book that can tell you how to spell, pronounce, and define over 5,000 terms relative to the American West.

Want to know what a “breachy” cow is? Turn to page 43 to learn that it’s an adjective used to describe a

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Did you ever need to spell “dogie” (as in, get-along-little), or need to know what a “sakey” is? This is the book that can tell you how to spell, pronounce, and define over 5,000 terms relative to the American West.

Want to know what a “breachy” cow is? Turn to page 43 to learn that it’s an adjective used to describe a cow that has a tendency to find her way through fences where she isn’t supposed to be. Describes some teenagers we know…

Spend hours perusing the dictionary at random, or read straight through to give you a flavor of the West from its beginnings to contemporary days. Laced with photographs and maps, the Dictionary of the American West will make you sound like an expert on all things Western, even if you don’t know your dingus from a dinner plate.

Compiled of words brought into English from Native Americans, emigrants, Mormons, Hispanics, migrant workers, loggers, and fur trappers, the dictionary opens up history and culture in an enchanting way. From “Aarigaa!” to “zopilote,” the Dictionary of the American West is a “valuable book, a treasure for any literate American’s library.” (Tony Hillerman)

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Western novelist Blevins ( The Misadventures of Silk and Shakespeare , LJ 10/1585) has developed this useful and interesting addition to the genre of dictionaries of regionalisms for lay readers. Her book therefore lacks the scholarly approach of Dictionary of American Regional English ( LJ 11/1/85) and Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West (o.p.). However, for those who don't know the difference between aguardiente and leopard sweat, this book is informative and fun. It is more encompassing than similar works, such as Western Words: A Dictionary of the American West and Cowboy Limbo (both o.p.), both by Ramon Adams; or Peter Watts's A Dictionary of the Old West (o.p.). Blevins's work incorporates the language of various Western professions, such as logging and mining, as well as ethnic groups, such as Mormons and Native Americans. Geographically, it ranges from the Klondike to the Southwest. In addition, the words included date from the history of the West to modern bureaucratic phraseology, with cross references, sources, and a pronunciation guide. Recommended for both reference and general entertainment collections. --Daniel Liestman, Seattle Pacific Univ. Lib.
School Library Journal
YA-A lively collection of 5,000 Western terms and expressions from ``a-coming and a-going'' to Zuni. Based on earlier dictionaries of the area but enhanced by the inclusion of such groups as ``women, Indians, Mormons, Hispanics, blacks, French Canadians...,'' the volume contains mostly short definitions of a few lines, but some are more lengthy and include quotes and anecdotes as well as pronunciation guides and cross references. This will be useful for readers of Westerns and for regional and local history collections.
Blevins, author of popular western novels, defines some 5,000 terms and expressions relevant to cowboy culture, historic and contemporary American Indian culture, ranching, gambling, the fur trade, cattle and horses, and native flora and fauna. The definitions are entertaining and informative. Includes b&w illustrations and a bibliographical essay. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Texas Christian University Press
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Expanded Edition
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

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Dictionary of the American West

Over 5,000 Terms and Expressions from Aarigaa! To Zopilote

By Win Blevins

TCU Press

Copyright © 2001 Winfred Blevins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87565-483-6



ÀLA COMANCHE A description of a rider hanging over the side of his horse; from the style of the Comanches in warfare.

AARIGAA! In Alaska, an exclamation that means "good," "fine." From the INUPIAQ language.

AARONIC The lower priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. For boys twelve to eighteen and new converts, these priests assist the bishop and act as teachers and deacons. (See also MELCHIZEDEK.)

ABALONE An edible mollusc of coastal California, much sought for its delicate taste. It takes verb form, as in signs warning "no abaloning" (or "abaloneing") or "I've abaloned."

ABOARD On horseback.

ABOVE MY BEND Beyond my capabilities; same as, above my huckleberry.

ABOVE SNAKES Above ground, meaning still alive.

ABRA In the Southwest, especially Texas, a narrow valley, a defile between close hills; a break in a MESA.

ABRAZO To say hello or goodbye by embracing someone with both arms and giving a pat on the back, a custom still existing in the Southwest today, especially among Hispanics. Borrowed from Spanish.

ACCESS ROAD Among loggers, a road built into remote areas of commercial timber for access for cutting and hauling. Such roads also give access to firefighters, hikers, hunters, packers, and other recreational users. They are viewed as a benefit by some, as destruction by others.

ACE HIGH A POKER hand that has an ace but no pair or better combination to bet on. The expression also may simply refer to anything top-notch or first-rate. When William Foster-Harris says in The Look of the Old West, "The Spencer ... was also ace high in the early West, a real frontier gun," he means it was a humdinger, the cat's meow.

COMBINATIONS: Aces back to back is an ideal situation; from when a player's first two cards are aces, one face up and one face down. Ace in the hole and ace up your sleeve mean "any hidden advantage." These expressions come from stud poker. A gun in a shoulder holster or other hideout might be a figurative ace in the hole.

ACEQUIA (uh-SAY-kee-uh) (1) In the Southwest, an irrigation ditch. The main ditch is known as an acequia madre. Borrowed from Spanish, it is frequently Americanized to sakey, also spelled saykee. (2) In New Mexico, an acequia is an association of landowners that manages a ditch. The shareholders are called parciantes and can number from a few to over a hundred; their allotment of water (which varies according to water flow and the location of their land) is called a sucro (a share) or a pión (a New Mexican variant of peón). (See also MAYORDOMO.)

ACION (ah-see-OHN) In the Mexican-American border country, a stirrup-leather. (See also STIRRUP.)

ACOMA The People of the White Rock and their Pueblo. Acoma, sitting on a mesa about an hour's drive west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was visited by Coronado in 1540 and is said to date to the eleventh century. The people of Acoma are now known for their pottery. (See also PUEBLO.)

ACORN CALF An undersized CALF, often sickly; a runt; a CULL.

ACROSS LOTS In the quickest, shortest way; via shortcuts.

ACTIONABLE FIRE Any forest fire that requires suppression, according to current policy of a national park or national forest. In many places policy does not allow the suppression of fires caused naturally.

ADDED MONEY In RODEO, the money provided by the rodeo committee. Together with the entry fees, it makes up the prize money.

ADIOS (ah-dee-OHS) Good-bye, a farewell, as is vaya con Dios ("go with God"). Borrowed from Spanish.

ADIT A passage, roughly horizontal, used to enter and drain a mine.

ADOBE A brick made of earth or clay and straw and dried in the sun; a clay suitable for making adobe bricks; the buildings that are made of the bricks. Usually the bricks are formed in wooden molds, built into thick walls, and plastered over. Adobes are common in the Southwest, especially in churches, public buildings, and homes that date from the Mexican or Spanish colonial periods, many of them handsome and of historic value. Use of adobe brick dates at least to ancient Egypt. Sometimes, as in the phrase adobe dollar, the word connotes an object of little value. Borrowed from Spanish.

The French in Missouri in the early eighteenth century used a building material of clay and straw, similar to adobe, called bousillage.

ADOBE-WALLED Executed; put up against an adobe wall and shot. Watts says that the expression probably arose during the 1870s, when Texas and Mexican cowboys stole cattle back and forth across the border, and some Texans who got caught were 'dobe-walled. (See also DRY-GULCH.)

AFOOT Without a horse. In the West, this meant that you had fallen into misfortune, had gone broke, or were lame-brained. You couldn't cover enough ground to get to food and water. You couldn't get out of the weather. You were vulnerable to wild critters. Cattle wouldn't respect you, and neither would other men. So to be afoot was to be in sad shape.

AGAVE (ah-GAH-vay) A succulent Southwestern plant (Agave sp.) with evergreen leaves arranged in a rosette on the ground; a common species is the century plant. Each leaf ends in a sharp spine; century plants bloom once and then die. They are used to make alcoholic drinks, soaps, and fibers; Indians use them as food. Borrowed from Spanish. (See also MAGUEY, MESCAL.)

A-GOING AND A-COMING Thoroughly, all the way, utterly. A man who beat another man at cards a-goin' and a-comin', or a-comin' and a-goin', had given him a whomping.

AGUA Water or rain. Borrowed from Spanish. COMBINATIONS: agua caliente (hot water); agua dulce (literally sweet water—potable water); agua miel (the juice of the MAGUEY before PULQUE, MESCAL, and TEQUILA are made from it).

AGUARDIENTE Booze, especially fiery booze. Originally it meant a brandy made in El Paso, but the meaning widened to include almost any kind of spirits. The MOUNTAIN MEN loved the aguardiente they got at Taos and Santa Fe in the 1820s, '30s, and '40s. Smith says that it is primarily a product of the MAGUEY, as are PULQUE, MESCAL, and TEQUILA, and makes those who imbibe it amorous. Borrowed from Spanish, it is an elision of agua ardiente (fiery water). It has been spelled in such creative variations as awardenty and aquardiente. (See also FIREWATER.)

AHKIO In Alaska, a light sled for freight.

AHO! "Thank you." An expression of the CROW language, it has become pan-tribal. Usually it offers thanks to the spirits and is said at the end of prayers and in association with rituals and ceremonies, sometimes like "amen." At POWWOWS and RENDEZVOUS, it may be a rousing affirmation, something like "Amen, brother!"

AI Artificial insemination; impregnating a cow with a "straw" of semen; usually done to obtain sperm from a high-quality bull that the rancher could not ordinarily afford. A gomer bull is an infertile bull used to bring the cows into heat so they will be ready to be inseminated.

AIM To intend, as in "I aim to lick that stupid, stubby-legged, red-eyed son of a she- cat."

AIM The American Indian Movement, an organization founded in 1968; one of various organizations formed in the last several decades to increase RED POWER. At first an urban movement, it spread to the RESERVATIONS, especially those of the SIOUX and other peoples on the Northern Plains most dispossessed. AIM activists once took over the BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS office in Washington, D.C., and in 1973 AIM members joined some OGLALA in what is known to many Indians as the second Battle of Wounded Knee. A SHOSHONE man of medicine said, "[AIM] takes the role of shock troops because the federal government and American people don't listen, and Indians are second-class citizens in their own country."

The opinion of its effectiveness in Indian country in the 1970s was divided, and some Indians and Anglos derisively called it AsshoGhosles in Moccasins. All the same, many of the changes sought by the organization have become policy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal councils.

AIR THE LUNGS A cowboy term meaning to cuss. Cowboys used to be notorious for their profane and scatological vocabulary, which they barely managed to suppress in front of women. Now the cussing has generally achieved gender equality.

AIR THE PAUNCH To throw up after drinking too much. Cowboy talk.

AIR-SEASONED Said of timber that has been seasoned in the air rather than in a kiln.

AIRTIGHTS Canned food. The cowboys of the days of the open range did have some canned food, mostly peas, peaches, meat, and milk. Tinned food was mass produced after the Civil War and became common in the West in the late 1800s.

AJO (AH-hoh) A common name for the desert lily (Hesperocallis undulata) of the Southwest; properly the name of the Southwestern garlic plant. Borrowed from the Spanish word for garlic.

ALAMO As a common noun, it means cottonwood tree. The Franciscan mission in San Antonio that became known as the cradle of Texas liberty was named for this ubiquitous Western tree. It is now used mostly as a Southwestern proper name. Borrowed from Spanish (where it means "poplar").

ALASKAN HUSKY In Alaska, any sled dog, especially a Siberian husky or a malamute. Originally derives from a denigrating name for Eskimos. Similar formations are Alaskan high kick (or one-foot high kick, an Eskimo kicking game), Alaska tea (made from the evergreen Ledum), Alaska time (maybe early, maybe late, depending on the weather), Alaska trade (of compliment for compliment); for animals—Alaskan husky, Alaskan jay, Alaska king crab (also called a spider crab), Alaskan mackerel (also called a kelp fish), Alaskan malamute, Alaska pollock, Alaska robin, Alaskan turkey (salmon); for plants—Alaska cotton, Alaska pine.

ALBARDON A packsaddle similar to the APAREJO. Borrowed from Spanish.

ALBINO A color of horse, white with blue eyes. (For the many colors of horses, see also BUCKSKIN.)

ALBONDIGA A ball of meat or fish. It is common on menus in the Southwest.

Borrowed from Spanish.

ALCALDE The mayor or justice of the peace of a Hispanic community; also called a regidor. The alcalde's territory was known as an alcaldia. Borrowed from Spanish (where it means "mayor").

AL-CAN Nickname for Alaska Highway; stands for Alaska-Canada Highway.

ALEUT A Native group of the Aleutian Islands, Shumagin Islands, and part of the Alaska Peninsula.

ALFALFA A leguminous plant (Medicago sativa) with purple flowers grown throughout the irrigated West for hay. Both the word and the plant came to the West from Mexico. An alfalfa cube is a CAKE of pressed alfalfa used to feed cows during the winter. Alfaloofee, in Wyoming, is a comical name for alfalfa.

ALFILARIA The common pin grass (Ergodium cicutarium) of the Plains; also spelled alfileria and alfilerilla, and sometimes Americanized to fileree or filaree. Borrowed from Spanish.

ALFORJA (al-FOR-ha) A saddlebag for a packhorse; a box of rawhide or canvas (perhaps even wood) carried on a packsaddle. Borrowed from Spanish.

ALICE ANN In the Southwest, a sorrel horse. According to Smith, it's a corruption of alazan, which is Spanish for sorrel. (See also BUCKSKIN.)

ALKALI (1) A powdery, white mineral that salts the ground in many low places in the West, particularly SINKS. It inhabits Western water, whitening the ground where water has risen to the surface and gone back down. It also spoils drinking water and gave many early Westerners the intestinal affliction (turistas) known as being alkalied. One Western meaning of alkali is a country with alkaline soil.

(2) A fellow who's been in the country for a long time. He is said to be alka-lied, that is, accustomed to the country. Often he's an old fellow but not necessarily so—any experienced man qualifies. The cattleman in Stewart Edward White's Arizona Nights said about the Westerner's attachment to the land, "An old 'alkali' is never happy anywhere else." Also known as a grissel heel, longhorn, or sourdough.

(3) As a verb, blinded by booze.

COMBINATIONS: alkali desert, alkali dust, alkali flat (a plain ruined by alkali, often an undrained, barren, hostile desert), alkali grass (which grows in alkaline soil), alkali heath (a plant), alkali pan (a shallow depression filled with alkali), alkali sink (a spot that doesn't drain), alkali spot (an area of gumbolike alkaline soil), alkali spring, alkali water.

ALL HANDS AND THE COOK Everybody; the entire outfit, all the cowboys and right on down to the cook.

ALL MY RELATIVES A translation of mitakuye oyasin, a DAKOTA phrase frequently repeated during the SWEAT LODGE and other ceremonies, prayers, and rituals.

Literally it means "all my relatives" or "we are all related." According to LAKOTA shaman Wallace Black Elk, it acknowledges the speaker's "personal relatedness to everything that exists."

ALODIK In Alaska, fried bread served as a sweet. (See also FRY BREAD.)

ALTA CALIFORNIA Literally, upper California; what became the state of California in the United States, as opposed to lower (Baja) California, which remains part of Mexico.

AMA In the Southwest, the mistress of a house. Borrowed from Spanish.

AMBULANCE On the frontier, a light, canvas-topped army wagon for carrying personnel, wounded or healthy; might mean almost any government wagon for transporting people. Also called a prairie wagon, it had no necessary association with hospitals or medical care.

AMIGO Friend; ubiquitous in the Southwest. Borrowed from Spanish.

AMOLE (uh-MOLE-ay) A YUCCA plant, especially the bulb, used to make soap. Borrowed from Spanish, which borrowed it from Nahuatl.

AMONG THE WILLOWS (1) On the lam, on the run, running from the law. (2) When said of a couple, making love.

ANASAZI The most widely used terms for the PUEBLO people who inhabited the Four Comers country of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah until seven centuries ago and are the ancestors of the modern Pueblo people. The Anasazi left CLIFF DWELLINGS, such as those at Mesa Verde, that are today the eloquent voice of their sojourn in the CANYON COUNTRY. They developed pottery, an economy based on agriculture, and an elaborate ceremonial religion. Near the end of the thirteenth century, they left their large pueblos, perhaps because of drought or pressure from enemies, and started afresh in the Rio Grande Valley and in the country of the ZUNI and HOPI peoples. (See also HOHOKAM.)

The term has come under fire recently on the grounds that it is a NAVAJO word meaning "ancient enemies," and Puebloan ancestors has gained favor in some quarters. But Navajo-speaking authorities say Anasazi simply means "the ancient ones" in their language.

ANDALE (AHN-duh-lay) Get going, get a move on. Southwestern cowboys say this to cows on a TRAIL DRIVE a lot. Borrowed from the imperative form of the Spanish verb andar (which means "to walk").

ANGAKOK The ESKIMO term for a shaman.

ANGEL An innocent at a horse auction, likely to buy unsound horses.

ANGLE IRON The metal triangle the cook raised a ruckus on to get all hands to dinner.

ANGLO In the Southwest, anyone not of Indian or Hispanic blood; a white person, especially a white Euro-American; "black Anglo," though, is not nonsense. New Mexico declares its public pride in being a state of three cultures, Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo.


Excerpted from Dictionary of the American West by Win Blevins. Copyright © 2001 Winfred Blevins. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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