Western Lingo

Face it. Westerners have a special “lingo.” Have you ever caught yourself uttering a word or phrase and wondering, “What does that even mean? Why do we say that?” If you haven’t, just humor me for a minute because the following information could come in very handy if you’re ever a contestant on “Jeopardy”. (“I’ll take “Western Lingo” for $500, Alex!”)

Let’s examine some words and phrases that are decidedly “Western.” Or are they?


Besides the fact that it is ridiculously fun to say, what would ever possess someone to say, “howdy,” instead of, “hello”?

“Howdy” is believed to have originated as a shortened form of the greeting “How do ye do?” It was first recorded as part of Southern U.S. dialect in 1840. There is an interesting alternative explanation for the source of howdies, however. It has been suggested that the origin lay in the Native American people’s inability to properly pronounce “How do ye do?” in early encounters with Europeans. This would certainly explain how it spread West from the American South, but there is no conclusive evidence to support this theory. This in no way, however, stops me from thinking that it is absolutely and positively correct!

“Don’t Know Beans”

Allow me to use this expression in a sentence: “Northerners don’t know beans about barbecue!” Yes, it means that someone doesn’t know anything about a particular topic.

This expression can apparently be traced back to early 19th Century American mercantile stores. Customers would routinely buy what were known as “blue beans.” The outer skin had a bluish tint, but when the outer skin was removed, the white interior of the beans became immediately apparent. As a joke, people would often ask the riddle, “How many blue beans does it take to make seven white beans?” If you didn’t know the answer, then you didn’t know beans! So, seven blue beans make seven white beans. . .and now you know beans!

Disclaimer: Don’t ask me what type of bean a blue bean might be called today. Unfortunately, I really don’t know beans about blue beans.

“Double Crosser”

Of course, the term “double crosser” is frequently preceded by the adjective, “dirty”. And, if you run across a particularly vile individual, he might even be called a low-down, dirty double crosser!

In the days of the Old West, illiteracy was more common than cholera. People who were unable to sign their names would mark an “X” on legal documents as their signature. When another “X” was made on top of the first “X”, the contract was rendered null and void. Voiding a contract violated one of the most revered aspects of “The Code of the West,” which was that a man’s word was his bond. So, being a low down dirty double crosser is absolutely, even today, a low down dirty shame!


“Hook, Line and Sinker”

When Easterners made their way West, they quickly became known for being gullible. Western fishermen would often tell these inexperienced outdoorsmen tall tales about “the one that got a way” with not only the hook, but also with the line and sinker. If the Easterner believed the fish tale, he was said to have taken the bait and fallen for it, “hook, line and sinker.” Oh, the shame!

“Up to Snuff”

Many Westerners grew up watching cowboys walking around with a mysterious wad of something-or-other in their mouths. Occasionally, there might even be a brown trickle oozing down a rugged chin. And, if you were very fortunate, you got to watch those manly men spit. Oh, the testosterone! That wad was what the old timers called snuff and what is now known as chewing tobacco.

But the term “snuff” actually had its origin in 19th Century European culture, not in the West. And while European snuff is also tobacco, it had a very different form and function than its Western counterpart: it was ground down into a powdered form and then inhaled through the nose. Now, even I learned very early not to put things up my nose, I believe it was back in the first grade. So, go figure!

But, back to the story. The best clue to the logic behind the expression “up to snuff” comes from the fact that when the phrase first appeared in early 19th century Europe, it didn’t mean simply “meeting a standard” as it does today. It meant “shrewd, sharp, sophisticated and not easily deceived,” and it was applied to people who were wise to the ways of the world, despite the fact that they were sucking things up into their noses. Since snuff was, at that time, largely a habit of adult men of comfortable means (it wasn’t cheap), it seems reasonable to assume that “up to snuff” meant “the sort of person who appreciates and uses snuff,” i.e., a worldly man.

“Up to snuff” as an expression caught on in the West pretty quickly after the arrival of European settlers, and all true citizens of the West will appreciate the fact that fortunately, the habit of sucking tobacco up the nose was transformed into a much more manly practice, once it passed west of the Mississippi.  I, for one, find the practice of drooling and spitting ever so much more appealing than snorting!

“Caught Red Handed”

Caught red handed is another phrase that was used often in old Western films and TV shows, but it did not originate there. This phrase is traced all the way to Scotland in the 15th century. Imagine!

It was a legal term that referred to murder or the poaching of an animal. (You can see why it is often believed to have come from the old West!) If you were caught with blood on your hands, you were guilty. It was as simple as that.

So, the next time someone tells you that you don’t know beans, you just tell them that you are up to snuff! Don’t fall for everything hook, line and sinker! And, if you think you’re dealing with a double crosser, hope that they are caught red handed!

Happy Trails, y’all!

Anita Lequoia


4 Replies to “Western Lingo”

  1. Thank you for this fun, informative post. Some of this info I already knew, but some I didn’t. It was very interesting and a lot of fun to read. Some of us, especially those of us in the horse world, still use some of the vernacular. I look forward to more posts!

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