Say What? Cowgirl & Cowboy Expressions

Mar 02, 2023 by Tempe Javitz
Say What?  Cowgirl & Cowboy Expressions

Western expressions can sometimes be confusing.  Many of 
them originated from all parts of America as pioneers headed
West.  Some probably came directly with the drovers who 
arrived and remained in Wyoming and Montana while trailing
longhorns from Texas.  A few days ago, I just listed all the
crazy expressions I heard frequently from the cowboys and 
cowgirls around me in Southeastern Montana where I grew up. 
Then I checked online to see if there was information about
where these exclamations originated.  They weren’t all from
Montana!  My favorite that I hadn’t heard before is, “Don’t
squat with your spurs on!”  

See below for an essential bibliography. 

Here’s some intriguing expressions I heard while growing up.

1.  “He bit off more than he could chew.” That person has 
    taken on a task they are unequal to, and not that he has
    swallowed a whole cow.
2.  “That lets the cat out of the bag.”  This means some 
    shenanigans or mischief I’d been up to had been discovered
    by my parents.
3.  “Barn sour” meant my horse loved his stall more than taking
    a ride with me.
4.  “Batwings” are long chaps with broad leather flaps good for
    keeping thorns out of your legs as you ride through the brush.
5.  To have “a bee in your bonnet,” usually means you are obsessed
    with something or can’t stop thinking and talking about it.  
    Oh, and don’t go riding through the brush where the hornets 
    nest.  I did that once.  OUCH!
6.  You should dress in your “best bib and tucker” on your way to
    church or a dance.  Do-Si-Do your partner.
7.  You might “chew gravel” when thrown from your horse. I’ve done
    that more than twice.
8.  A “crow bait” is a very poor-quality horse, aged, and sway 
    backed too.
9.  The “hoosegow” is your local jail.  Please stay out of there.
10. When everything is in “apple pie order,” then all is well with
    the world.
11.  If someone says “thunderation”, it’s a non-profane curse word.
12.  If all is “above board” it conforms to all the rules or 
     the law.
13.  When your father says “what in the tarnation is that,” he’s
     unwilling or unable to believe something you’ve done.
14.  “Yeehaw” an expression of delight such as “Yeah” or “Oh boy!” 
     One of my favorite exclamations.
15.  If you hear “Make hay while the sun shines,” you know that 
     right now is the best time to complete a job, like mow or rake
     the hay field.  My brothers were very good at this task.
16.  What’s a “scaredy cat?”  That’s me, afraid to jump from the
     hay loft down into the manger below stacked with loose hay.
17.  Have you ever “been through the mill?”  If so, you have faced
     a lot of problems or difficulties.
18.  If you have “played second fiddle” you are not in an orchestra.
     You’ve played a subordinate role to someone, sometimes a demeaning
19.  “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” usually meant that I was glad when
     a person or problem had vanished from my life.
20.  Personally, I’ve been “plum tuckered out” at the end of a day’s 
     roundup, i.e., very tired.
21.  My mother said I looked “like something the cat dragged in,” when
     my brother and I came in from playing trucks in the mud.
22.  Have you ever been “fit to be tied?” That’s how I feel when I’m
     furious about something.
23.  If “your lights are on but nobody is home” it’s time to go home
     and rest your brain…  Been there, done that.
24.  There have been times when I needed something to “tide me over.” 
     What I needed was a snack to fight off hunger since we hade been
     riding since 3:30 a.m. to gather the cows and calves for branding.
25.  Once in a while my housekeeping is “a lick and a promise.”  Which
     means my work is haphazard at best.
26.  I was “knee high to a grasshopper,” and I didn’t like to be called 
     that just because I was a small child.

*** Best bets:  (1) “Cowboy Slang: Colorful Cowboy Sayings,” by Edgar
    R. Potter (2) “Frontier Slang, Lingo & Phrases,” by Kathy Weiser-Alexander
    and (3) “Western Words, A Dictionary of the Old West,” by Ramon Adams.

More fun.  My book “Bighorn Visions, the Photography of Jessamine Spear 
Johnson,” will be released on April 11th by the South Dakota Historical 
Society Press.  
Pre-orders are available now

Whew, that’s enough.  I’m fixin to go make breakfast, and "that’s 
all she wrote."