A Calamitous Collection

Calamity's narrator, fifteen-year-old Calamity Jane, is a sharp-tongued cowgirl who uses a lot of slang—especially when yelling at her alien gunslinger.

So to get you ready for her adventures on the high plains of Wyoming, enjoy A Calamitous Collection of the saddle slang used in the novel—from ending up above snakes and driving the nail to seeing the elephant with someone to ride the river with.

And follow me on Instagram or Facebook to get occasional updates for your saddle slang vocabulary. And share your favorite cowgirlisms with the hashtag #saddleslang.


Above/beneath snakes
adjective. Above, still alive and kicking. Beneath, not any more.

Was ten bullets in that cartridge. Was three of Somers’ boys hiding in that feed store. But even if he could draw them out, was there bullets enough—was there red fire enough in that Green gun of his—to best the host arrayed against us? If them soldiers moved in, wasn’t no walls or bullets or red flashing death what could stop them all—or their Gatlings—before the two of us ended up beneath snakes.

According to Hoyle
adverb. Correct and in accord with a strict set of rules. Taken from a collection of rules for card games.

noun. Coffee. Taken from a popular brand of the 1800s. 


noun. Dry, inhospitable terrain typical of many western locations. Difficult to travel. The term also applies to specific barren areas ofSouth Dakota.

Balled up
adjective. Confused.

Bark at a knot
verb. To waste time.

Beat the devil around the stump
verb. To evading responsibility or a difficult task.

verb. To kill.

Bend an elbow
verb. To have a drink.

noun. Cheap whiskey.

noun. An Indian male who dressed and lived entirely as a woman, fulfilling a cultural role within the tribe. A two-spirit. Sometimes called in Indian languages a "would be woman" and sometimes thought of as a third sex. Common among the tribes of the Americas, these men-women had social and religious powers. They might be givers of sacred names, first to strike the sun-dance pole, leaders of scalp dances, good luck to war parties, visionaries and predictors of the future, matchmakers, artisans, or the creators and singers of songs. Understood as following a vision by most Indians, they were not tolerated by whites.

For a time, I watched them warriors do their terrible dance, moving in and out of shadow like nightmares, naked but for paint like blood on their skin, rifles and Green guns flashing in the firelight. And in the middle of their dance, that berdache—that would-be woman—raising his arms to the heavens, evoking their savage gods.

Best bib and tucker
noun. Your best clothes. Bibs and tuckers were items of women's clothing from the 17th to late 19th centuries. Bibs were like modern day bibs, although not used to protect clothes from spilled food, and tuckers were lace pieces fitted over the bodice.

I looked away from him, at that. His look suddenly made me feel queer. Not like when Jeb or the other men in town looked at me, understand? Those looks made me want to crawl right out of my skin. No, the Green Man’s look was different. Didn’t make me feel bad at all. Made we worry about my braids and the dirt on my face and the shabbiness of my clothes. Made me wish I was wearing my best bib and tucker, or some such, not some torn dungarees and a bloodied flannel. 

noun. A hen. Also, a nagging or complaining woman.

Biggest toad in the puddle
noun. The most important person in a group.

noun. A second. A very short time.

Bone orchard
noun. A cemetery.

adjective. Nonsense.

adjective. Best.

noun. A cowboy, often specifically from the desert country of Oregon, Nevada, California, or Idaho.

Bug juice
noun. Booze, whiskey.

noun. A person who drives a team of oxen, usually walking beside them.

adjective or interjection. Best or outstanding, often as an exclamation.

adjective. A lie. Often used to describe bunko artists (con men).

But, God, if it was just for that one moment, maybe that was reason enough not to beef him. Somers might be bunko. Shit, he might be fucking married. But in that moment, with us so tangled up and clumsy under them million candles in the sky? Was a sweetness, then. Was a sweetness I could still feel between them thighs of mine in that moment between dreaming and waking, when your blood starts pumping afresh and all manner of your parts wake from their slumbering.

noun. A cowardly attack or ambush.

Buzzard food
adjective. Dead.

By hook or crook
adverb. To use any means necessary.


Cold as a wagon tire
adjective. Dead.

Come a cropper
verb. To come to ruin or fail, often dramatically.

Now, Jimmy’s wits was dulled, see, by that scream the Green Man put on him. But his tears was slowing and his limbs stopped all their shaking. Blood dripped from his shoulder, urine from his chaps. Was all a mess, I tell you. All come a cropper. But when he saw me looking down that long barrel at him, my shaking hands waving that sight across his torso, belly, and groin, well, Jimmy caught a breath quick.

noun. Pulmonary tuberculosis.

noun. An idiot, simpleton.

Cotton to
verb. To take a liking to.

Courting calamity
verb. To look for or seek out trouble.

noun. A poor-quality horse.

Curly wolf
noun. A tough or dangerous person.

Cut a swell
verb. To make a good impression, to present well.


adjective. Good, excellent.

Some dumb giddy laugh in my voice,  I kicked a splash and said, “Expect I’m someone proper to ride the river with, do you? Reckon you think I’m just daisy!”
He laughed just a little at that. Fucking sunshine, that laugh was. Then he just nodded. “We’ll see.”

Dead to rights
adjective. Thoroughly or completely done.

noun. The deaths of several animals—typically cattle—from exposure, disease, starvation, or other catastrophe.

Drive the nail
verb. To drive a nail into a post with rifle or pistol shot, typically as a game.

Dog soldier
noun. A member of the warrior society of some plains Indian tribes.

Don't care a continental
verb. To not give a damn.

noun. An Easterner or anyone in up-scale or urban clothes, rather than plain range-riding or work clothes. Often derrogitory.


Fag out
verb. To get out fast.

noun. A card game that took its name from faroon, a derivative of pharaon (pharaoh). The Pharoah was the king of hearts in a regular deck of cards. Players bet on the order in which cards would be drawn from a box.

Fight like Kilkenny cats
verb. To fight tenaciously and to the end. From an old story about two cats who fought to the death and ate each other up such that only their tails were left.

I drifted off to sleep beside the fire, my mind whirling. Thinking on the Green Man and me on the prod, walking into Jeb’s trap, fighting like Kilkenny cats at each other’s back, a rifle in my hands, those pistols in his. Dreamt about revenge, I did. Sweet dreams, indeed.

Fine as cream gravy
adjective. Very good, top notch.

Flying engine
noun. A spacecraft or aircraft, speficially of Green origin.

French pox
noun. Syphilis

Full of piss
adjective. Short for full of piss and vinegar. Rowdy, boisterous, full of youthful energy.

noun. A disturbance.


Galvanized Yankee
noun. A former Confederate prisoner of war who served in the Union army during the Civil War or later in the U.S. Army in the West, specifically during the Indian Wars.

Was about a dozen federal cavalrymen. Galvanized Yankees, most of them—or so I’d learn. And right in the middle of them, standing a full head above the rest like some kind of wicked reflection of the Green Man, was that gray fella in a blue cavalry uniform covered by some queer black duster what shined in the gas light almost as much as his skin. And I was right afraid. 

Get a wiggle on
verb. To hurry.

Get the bulge on
verb. To gain the advantage over, to surprise.

Get your back up
verb. To get angry.

Go through the mill
verb. To have an experience.

Go up the flume
verb. To lose, to die.

noun. A farmer.

verb. To be thrown from a horse.

Gun thug
noun. An outlaw or gunslinger.


Hang fire
verb. To delay.

Hard case
noun. A worthless person, a bad man.

verb. To be armed with a gun.

noun and verb. Rope. As a verb, to hang someone. Hemp fever and hemp party were a morbidly jocular terms for a hanging. A hemp committee was a group of vigilantes or a lynch mob and a hemp necktie was the rope they did the deed with.

Hobble your lip
verb. To shut up.

Hog-killing time
noun. Literally, the time of year when hogs are killed. Figuratively, a very good time or entertainment.

No, I mean that walk along the Sweet Water what seemed to last forever and what ended all too soon. And the night what followed. Goddamn, that’s a bright memory, I tell you. Maybe because of what happened the next day. But maybe because it was true and simple and good. Was a hog-killing time, if you take my meaning. With the weight of the chase lifted and the Green Man by my side, wasn’t nothing, it seemed, could ruin that day.

Hot as a whorehouse on nickel night
adjective. Very hot. Very.


verb. To talk.


Kick up a row
verb. To create a disturbance.

Knock galley west
verb. To beat seneseless.

Knocked into a cocked hat
verb. To foul up, to render useless.


Lands sake
interjection. A widely acceptable obscentiy.

Light a shuck
verb. To get out fast.

Like a proper thoroughbred
adjective. Like a gentleman

noun. An outlaw, someone who often has to stay in the saddle for an extended period of time while on the run.

For some, they might’ve seen some victim. Some young thing carried off by a space man. But for them what knew better, was some longrider they saw in me, goddamnit. Was some girl what put her share of theirs in the grave yesterday. What burned that fort on the Platte to the ground and butchered its gray devil. Was a cold killer they saw in me—some shadow of that green thing what stood ready to beef them all.

noun. An idiot, simpleton.


Madder than an old wet hen
adjective. Very angry.

Make a mash
verb. To impress someone, specificlly a woman.

Man for breakfast
noun. A murdered body in the streets at dawn. A common expression in the early days of Los Angeles and Denver.

I told him, when that girl was, gone, “Seems you had yourself a man for breakfast ... So I hope you got your elbow bent plenty and your pecker polished just fine, last night. Because the time for merriment is right spent.” 

Mud sill
noun. A low-life, a disreputable person

Mutton puncher
noun. A sheepherder, often derrogatroy.


Nail to the counter
verb. To prove a lie.

Nosey parker
noun. A nosey person.


The Old States
noun. The Eastern United States

Of the first water
adjective. Best, of the highest regard.

On the prod
adjective. Looking for trouble.

And there, I drifted off to sleep beside the fire, my mind whirling. Thinking on the Green Man and me on the prod, walking into Jeb’s trap, fighting like Kilkenny cats at each other’s back, a rifle in my hands, those pistols in his. Dreamt about revenge, I did. Sweet dreams, indeed.

On the shoot
adjective. Looking for trouble.

noun. A cowboy who rides over a range to prevent cattle from straying.


Pecker pole
noun. A small tree or sapling.

verb. To have sex.

adjective. Entierly, completely.

noun. Personal belongings.

noun. A small bag usually made of leather or rawhide.

Pull my donkey's tail
verb. To make a joke.


Rattle your hocks
verb. To hurry up.

noun. A reprobate.

adjective. Drunk.

I woke up plumb soaked. Not wet, if you take my meaning. Roostered. Like I’d been on a night-long bender, throwing back the Taos Lightning until I passed out in the saddle. Shit! Was only fifteen, remember, but I knew what it felt like to be properly soaked.


Saddle stiff
noun. A cowboy.

noun. Guts, courage.

noun. Money.

Seeing the elephant
verb. To see it all. To gain experience of the world at a significant cost. Elephant sightings often began with excitement and high ideals before ending with disenchantment. This succession of high excitement followed by low disappointment epitomizes the elephant as something most wanted to see but few would ever want to see again.

I come up fast as I could with that revolver. He was a mess, that toothless mudsill. Gushing blood from his head and arm. I put that gun to him like I should’ve done Jimmy. Like I’d done Jeb a thousand times in my mind’s eye.
Expect he saw the elephant right then. Expect he saw it good.

noun. Any firearm manufacturered by Christian Sharps for the Sharps Rifle Company. This term also applied to professional gamblers who cheated at the poker tables.

Shin out
verb. To run away.

Shoot or give up the gun
verb. To act or stop talking about it.

Shut your cock holster
verb. To shut up.

verb. To scurry away.

adjective. Drunk.

Someone to ride the river with
noun. A person who can be counted on. A reliable person.

“Whatever happened to that girl what couldn’t pull a trigger?”
Might as well have asked him what happened to that cold son of a bitch what left me at Harthra’s by my lonesome. But wasn’t in me, then. No sir. Seeing the Green Man’s smile, and seeing that Henry held true in his hands? Shit, just to be breathing after that mad dash between bullets and dynamite? Here was one to ride the river with if ever there was.
“Reckon you must’ve left her there,” I told him.

noun. A period of time.

Strong enough to float a colt
adjective. Very strong, usually describing coffee or whiskey.


Taos lightening
noun. A potent liquor.

Two whoops and a holler
adjective. Not far.


adjective. Naked. Drawn. An unshucked gun is one that's out of its holster.

Well, on hearing that gray fella come through them batwings, the Green Man turned around and, quick as shit, unshucked his Colt and that big gun of his. Was a cruel looking gun, that thing. That big soup-can barrel punched through the end by some little hole the size of a penny glowing like red death ready to spring out.

Up the spout
adjective. Lost, dead.


noun. A cowboy, especially a one who drifted from ranch to ranch and helped out in busy times. 

Wake up the wrong passenger
verb. To trouble or anger the wrong person. Derived from the habit of railroad conductors waking up passengers on long-durration trips to confirm their identities and destinations.

And, God, I didn’t know him from Adam, yet, but I could just feel the rage in that voice. I don’t think any of us—me, Jimmy, Jeb Boone, anybody in Piedmont that day—had any notion of what kind of passenger we woke up. But we’d find out soon enough. Goddamnit, we would. Not before half the town had gone up the flume but we’d know.

Wipe your chin
verb. To shut up.

Worse than a cat in a roomful of rockers
adjective. Nervous.


noun. An idiot, simpleton.

verb. To talk on and on.

Yellow belly
noun. A coward.

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