Cowboy Slang Right Out Of The Wild West

Although old-timey cowboys spent a vast majority of their days rounding up cattle, they were quite the multitaskers, even developing their own lingo as they worked. Phrases such as “chew gravel” and the “best bib and tucker” were once commonplace among Wild Westerners, making “Cowboy” a foreign language to outsiders. Don’t worry if you’re at sea right now; keep scrolling, and you’ll learn how to talk like a true cowboy. Trust us, you won’t be barkin’ at a knot.

Big Bugs Run The Show

Big Bugs Run The Show
Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The devastating winter of 1886-1887 led to more and more cowboys giving up the open range lifestyle. Instead, they went to work for privately owned ranches and the big bugs that owned them.

The big bugs, aka the boss, had cowboys doing more than just herding cattle. On the ranch, cowboys were in charge of day-to-day maintenance, such as mending fences, caring for the horses, and, in some instances, helped build the foundations of some frontier towns.

Horses Get Owl Headed If They Sense Trouble

Horses Get Owl Headed If They Sense Trouble
Marianna Massey/Getty Images
Marianna Massey/Getty Images

It can take from eight to 12 cowboys during busy seasons to wrangle up to 3,000 head of cattle and get them to the correct location. That’s a lot of men and livestock for potential bandits or wild animals to pick off.

Thankfully, horses are pretty wary of their surroundings. And if a horse stars getting owl headed or won’t stop looking around, it’s a safe bet that there is danger lurking close by.

Waddies Moved From Ranch To Ranch

Waddie's Moved From Ranch To Ranch
Marianna Massey/Getty Images
Marianna Massey/Getty Images

The main job of a cowboy is to tend to the cattle, rounding them up and getting them ready to transport via train to potential buyers. Some of these men even drift from ranch to ranch during busy times to help move livestock, branding their hides in order to differentiate which cattle came from which ranch.

In cowboy lingo, these drifting cattle rustlers are called waddies, especially in the western parts of the United States.

Cowboys Don’t Give Their Work A Lick And A Promise

Cowboys Don't Give Their Work A Lick And A Promise
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, cowboys rounded up millions of longhorn cattle, bringing them to railroads. There, they’d ship off their stock, hoping to sell them for a good price.

At the time, the northern market would purchase cattle for up to $40 per head. The huge potential for money made it so cowboys wouldn’t give their cattle herding a lick and a promise; they wouldn’t do it haphazardly, but correctly and efficiently.

Cowboys Want A Horse With Cow Sense

Cowboys Want A Horse With A Cow Sense
Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Through the late 1800s, ranching became very widespread, with cowboys being able to claim lands on the Great Plains as “open range.” There, they were able to raise their cattle. But if one thing goes hand in hand with a cowboy and his cattle, it’s a horse with cow sense.

This means that the horse knows how to act around cows. They won’t get spooked and will allow their rider to guide them around the other massive animals.

Bangtails Are Caught, Broke, And Sold

Bangtails Are Caught, Broke, And Sold
Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images
Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

From the late 18th century to the early 20th century, cowboys would catch, break, and sell wild horses to the markets in territories now known as California, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico.

While other people call these wild horses mustangs, in cowboy slang, they’re called “bangtails.” This specific horse breed can come in any color, but all are known to have extremely high endurance and are described as being surefooted. Breaking a bangtail is a huge accomplishment.

A Broom-Tail Has Nothing To Do With Cleaning

A Broom-Tail Has Nothing To Do With Cleaning
Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While a broom-tail sounds like something you sweep the floor with, the term has nothing to do with cleaning at all. The phrase describes an ugly horse, one that is ill-behaved and is acting like a mustang or wild horse.

These horses have picked up a little reputation for being difficult to break and train, making them “badly behaved” in the eyes of the cowboy who is trying to sell it.

A Bone Orchard Isn’t A Place You’d Pick Fruit

Winter in New Mexico
Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images
Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images

On a dark night, someone who believes in ghosts might refuse to take a shortcut through the bone orchard to get home. That’s because it’s not a place you’d go to harvest fruit — it’s a slang phrase meaning cemetery or graveyard.

The expression is still pretty common today. There’s a motorcycle parts company with the name, several novels referencing the phrase in their titles, and the name of a beer brewed by Second Salem Brewing Company.

Prairie Coal Is Used To Light Fire But It’s Definitely Not Coal

Prairie Coal Is Used To Light Fire But It's Definitely Not Coal
Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The winter of 1886-1887 was brutal, killing off thousands of cattle with the below-freezing temperatures that plagued parts of the American West. Even so, there were a few ways cowboys stayed warm, and it had nothing to do with coal.

Instead, cowboys would burn something they call prairie coal. And while it sounds like a substance native to prairies, it’s nothing more than dried cow manure from the livestock they were trying to keep alive.

Others Didn’t Consider Cowboys Ace-High

Others Didn't Consider Cowboys Ace-High
Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In the American West, cowboys were often considered lawless citizens. Sometimes, they were even banned from certain establishments, such as saloons, because owners were afraid they’d start brawls with other patrons.

Needless to say, their gun-slinging ways gave them a bad reputation, and they weren’t considered to be ace-high like their big bug ranch owners. This meant that they weren’t considered first-class citizens or necessarily highly respected by others in their small towns.

Best Bibs And Tuckers = Dressed To Impress

Best Bibs And Tuckers = Dress To Impress
Digital Light Source/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Digital Light Source/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If there’s a special occasion, cowboys will put on their best bibs and tuckers, dressing to impress the people at the gathering. But neckties, jeans, and button-downs are definitely not their everyday apparel while out on the ranch.

Typically, cowboys wear bandanas to ward off dust, wide-brimmed hats to protect their faces from the sun, leather boots to help them ride horses, and some even throw on chaps over their pants to protect their legs from cacti and rocky terrain.

Adam’s Ale Has Nothing To Do With Alcohol

Adam's Ale Has Nothing To Do With Alcohol
Joe McNally/Getty Images
Joe McNally/Getty Images

Working outside all day, it’s not uncommon for ranch hands and cowboys to seek out a cool glass of Adam’s ale. But contrary to popular belief, this phrase doesn’t refer to an alcoholic beverage. In fact, it only means water.

The phrase alludes to the biblical Adam, who only had water to drink in the Garden of Eden. It came into popularity during the temperance movement at the beginning of the 19th-century.

Batwings Are Worn To Protect A Certain Body Part

Batwings Are Worn To Protect A Certain Body Part
William Mancebo/Getty Images
William Mancebo/Getty Images

Stereotypically, cowboys have a few articles of clothing that they are known to wear while rounding up cattle and working on a ranch. One of those pieces of clothing being something they call batwings.

Now, batwings are not costume wings they put on their back, but a term used to describe long chaps. Worn over jeans or other trousers, long chaps are typically made of thick leather and protect cowboys from rocky terrain and cactus needles.

Entertainment Doesn’t Involve Caterwauling

Entertainment Doesn't Involve Caterwauling
TORSTEN SILZ/DDP/AFP via Getty Images
TORSTEN SILZ/DDP/AFP via Getty Images

After a long day on the ranch, working to the bone to make no more than $25-$40 a month, cowboys like to relax and take a load off. Oftentimes on the ranch, cowboys would bunk with one another, allowing for some much-needed bonding and entertainment after work is finished.

Some entertainment included card games, playing instruments such as the harmonica and guitar, and singing songs. Unfortunately, though, not everyone can sing like an angel, and they get the occasional man caterwauling on his bunk, aka singing very poorly.

Cowboys Have No Time For Coffee Boilers

Cowboys Have No Time For Coffee Boilers
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

For most of their day, cowboys ride on horseback, tending to various aspects of the ranch while herding cattle in the process. So, as one can imagine, daily work was difficult, labor-intensive, and very long — sometimes up to 15 hours.

Because of the long hours and the hands-on work that comes with being a ranch-hand cowboy, there is no time for coffee boilers. This phrase relates to lazy people who would rather lounge around than help.

Inviting Someone To Dance Doesn’t Mean Going To The Club

Inviting Someone To Dance Doesn't Mean Going To The Club
Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When a cowboy asks someone if they want to dance, it doesn’t mean they want to take them out to the local saloon and dance to the band there. It’s actually the complete opposite. An invite to dance could mean shooting at a man’s feet, making him dance and hop around.

There are even examples of this being a game of will. Each dancer stands completely still, waiting for the other to shoot and vice versa. The first one to flinch or move, aka dance, loses.

Burning The Breeze Is The Thing To Do At Rodeos

Burning The Breeze Is The Thing To Do At Rodeos
Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images
Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images

The first professional rodeo was held in 1888, in Prescott, Arizona. It’s a way for cowboys to test their skills, performing in elaborate competitions based on their daily tasks. Events like bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping, bareback bronco riding, and barrel racing are among the competition categories.

While some of the events have the cowboy holding on to a wild, bucking animal, the latter has them burning the breeze, or riding at full speed in order to get the best time.

Ranchers Acknowledge The Corn And Hire Cowboys

Ranchers Acknowledge The Corn And Hire Cowboys
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Shortly after the Spanish arrived in America, they began building ranches to raise livestock. Of course, ranches can’t be run by a single man, and the Spanish realized this fact early on. Pretty much, they acknowledged the corn (admitted the truth) and realized they needed to hire people proficient in certain aspects of ranching.

Because of their superior riding, roping, and herding skills, ranch owners hired native Mexican vaqueros to work on their ranches, wrangling horses.

Many Cowboys Aired Their Lungs During Disputes

Many Cowboys Aired Their Lungs During Disputes
William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images
William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images

In the wild west, cowboys were known as the outlaws, people who didn’t exactly follow the rules and rode to the beat of their own drum. Or, in this case, the beat of their horses’ hooves.

Because of this, it wasn’t too uncommon for owners of various establishments to turn cowboys away. This caused more than one dispute, with both parties “airin’ their lungs” with some colorful language. The slang phrase means cussing.

There’s Not Time To Be Barkin’ At A Knot On The Ranch

There's Not Time To Be Barkin' At A Knot On The Ranch
Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images
Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images

Ranch work is time-consuming, with multiple tasks needing to be handled on a daily basis. Sometimes, cowboys wind up working up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Pretty much, there’s no time to be barkin’ at a knot when you’re a cowboy.

This means there is no time to work on something useless or a project that is going to take up a majority of a worker’s time.