Sunday, August 14, 2016

Cowgirl Sass & Savvy

Range vernacular

By Julie Carter

Language ranks among the most visible, audible, extensive, and useful cultural evidence that human societies create. Undeniably, it is one of the more important parts of any culture.

Anyone looking into ranch life and cowboy history will find that the culture of the American West has a language all its own. Yankees don’t understand it and rarely recognize it as a real language.

I know that my personal dialect is that of a direct plain-spoken Westerner. I use words that others don’t recognize as words and I leave out words (that) others would place in the thought process I’m expressing. See parenthesis. They might call it correct grammar, I call it unnecessary.

While I possess in the recesses of my upbringing a full vocabulary of “range vernacular,” some very skilled mentors managed to round off the edges of my speech.

As a young girl my mother came to the West from the civilized world bringing with her a refined vocabulary. I was also blessed with teachers that were able to guide me to hold my own in polite company when it came to conversation.

I’m not embarrassed that I often have to look up the meaning of words used casually and easily by my fellow scribes. Given the opportunity, I could give them a few they would have to investigate, not because they are unlearned but because it’s a foreign language to them. And those words won’t be in ordinary dictionaries.

In the language called cowboy, jingle isn’t the sound that a bell makes or a rhyme. It is a verb that means to gather the horses.

By definition, hooley-ann isn’t a country girl but a type of loop thrown to catch a horse. Hoolihan is something completely different. While dew claw is a part of bovine anatomy, the labels for saddle horses from the remuda could include crow-hopper, craw-fisher or the blind bucker.

The early cowboy was generally not highly educated but he never lacked for expression. The sharp directness of his speech seemed novel and strange to conventional people but no one could accuse him of being boring. His ability to turn a picturesque phrase was as refreshing as it was unexpected and often showed his keen sense of humor.

His figures of speech are descriptive and clearly accurate. Trying to accomplish the impossible is “like tryin’ to scratch your ear with your elbow.” When expressing his idea of prominence he might say it “stuck out like a new saloon in a church district.”

Pretty is “prettier than a spotted dog under a red wagon,” and ugly is expressed in colorful descriptions like “so narrow between the eyes he could look through a keyhole with both eyes.” Chouse is chase -- either cows or girls.

Today’s cowboy is quite often very educated, but you will find that the book learnin’ never takes away his ability to employ his words in a way that suits him. He will arrange them in a manner that best expresses his idea and be completely unrestricted by tradition.

That cowboy slang, twang and verbal saunter is often worn like the camouflage of a chameleon. It is not unusual for a cowboy to use it to beguile his listener, lulling them into a false sense of superiority. The dumb-ol’-boy trick has made many a cowboy a pile of money. Their theory is to not ever tamper with the natural ignorance of a greenhorn.

Whatever their dialect, phraseology, and vernacular, the cowboy has always had a way of expressing a big thought in a few words. “Success is the size of the hole a man leaves after he dies.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Julie knows a cowchip is paradise for a fly. She can be reached for comment at

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