Western Lingo Rides Again!

Cowboy lingoIt’s time to play Western Lingo again! Hold on tight, Pardner, ‘cause we’re about to explore some of my favorite Western words and phrases. Yee-haw!

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

To Westerners, the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” is of rather obvious origin. However, I was recently talking to a Canadian friend and learned that she had no idea that the phrase was a reference to hunting dogs. I was telling a story about a relative’s old hunting dog, Bugle Ann.

Western lingoBugle Ann was beautiful and loyal, but let’s just say that Bugle Ann was not the brightest bulb in the barn! When I mentioned that Bugle Ann would literally bark up the wrong tree, my Canadian friend had a startling revolution and screamed, “That’s how the phrase originated!” Yes. Yes, it is. But, oh, it didn’t start with Bugle Ann. After all, she was not the first hunting dog with more beauty than brains.

Hunting dogsYoung hunting dogs are often trained with older, skilled hunting dogs. In the case of Bugle Ann, she watched as the other dogs treed a raccoon and stood barking at the base of the tree. Perhaps, in an effort to avoid the crowd, Bugle Ann selected a raccoon-less tree and began to howl for all she was worth. She was worth a lot for companionship and entertainment value, but not for her hunting skills.

Of course, we use the phrase, “barking up the wrong tree,” to indicate that someone is misguided in an assumption. It can mean that someone is wasting an effort by attempting something that is doomed to fail.

Westward ho!The origin of the phrase is undoubtedly Western. The first known written citation of “barking up the wrong tree” appeared in 1832, in James Kirke Paulding’s book, Westward Ho! In 1833, the phrase appeared in Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee where it says, “I told him that he reminded me of the meanest thing on God’s Earth, an old coon dog barking up the wrong tree.” By 1838, there is record of the phrase being used in the U.S. House of Representatives, when M. Duncan of Ohio said, “Instead of having treed their game, gentlemen will find themselves still barking up the wrong tree.” I have no idea of what good ol’ M. Duncan was referring to, but it doesn’t sound as if Washington has changed a lot in that last 175 years!

Brushpopper, Brush Popper or Brush-Popper

Brush-PopperBrushpopper is another good Westernism. It means a cowboy who works in the brush, although it sort of sounds like a deep fried appetizer that should be sold at state fairs! (“I’ll take an order of spicy brushpoppers, a fried Oreo and a funnel cake, please.”)

Now, most people could figure out the “brush” portion, and that “popper” can refer to a person who pops. But anyone who has ever tried to chase a cow out of brush knows that when ripping a hole in a wall of thorns and thickets while on horseback, there’s not much “popping” taking place!

Texas brushpopperThat explains why, in the 1936 book, Cowboy Lingo, Ramon F. Adams wrote that brushpoppers worked “where brush was so thick a bird couldn’t fly through and snakes had to climb to see out.” Brush-hand, Brush whacker, brush thumper and brush buster are all synonyms of brushpopper!

The term “Brushpopper” dates back to, at least, the 1920s, when it appeared in the writings of J. Frank Dobie, a Texas folklorist. The term made an appearance in both the 1969 and 2010 versions of the film True Grit. There was nothing like the movie magic of John Wayne, as Rooster Cogburn, telling Glen Campbell’s character, Le Bouef, “You do and it’ll be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brushpopper.”

Texas brushpopper

In 2006, a rifle was trademarked with the name, “Texas Brush Popper”. It sounds like the term is here to stay.

Brushpopper rifle

Galoot or Galloot

"Big" galootMy first few attempts to find the origin of the word, “galoot” were unsuccessful. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not about to accept “origin unknown” as an answer. At least, I’m not going to accept it as an answer until I’ve spent countless hours using my mad Googling skills! While I didn’t find a lot on the origin of galoot, I did find a cute slideshow of unusual animal partners. But, instead of telling you about the dachshund nursing a lion cub, I’ll tell you what I already knew about the word galoot.

  • To call someone a galoot can be on par with calling that person a nincompoop. Some words don’t need a definition! Galoots seem to be rather sizeable—as in, “You big galoot!” You never hear anybody call someone a little galoot! When it comes to galoots, it’s all or nothing!
  • Galoot manages to be a playful term of endearment and an insult all rolled up into one word. It’s sort of the “Aloha!” of nouns!

And, here’s what I actually learned when I wasn’t looking at pictures of animals:

  • The word galoot can be traced back to the early 1800s.
  • Galoot was once a nautical word. In C.S. Abbey’s 1859 book, Before the Mast, he wrote, “Some Gilute let go the… sheets before hauling down the chewlines.”
  • By the time of the Civil War, galoot was also used to refer to young, inexperienced soldiers.
  • By 1905, galoot was used to mean, “fellow,” in W.S. Kelly’s book, Lariats. Kelly wrote, “All the local galoots assembled at Wilson’s ranch to see him off.”

As you can see by the last example, the term galoot was adopted by Westerners and has come to be a sort of synonym for, “good ol’ boy.” Oh, and if you’re interested in the origin of galoot, well, that is still unknown. The internet told me so!

Happy (word) tales to you! Until we meet again!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

6 Replies to “Western Lingo Rides Again!”

  1. As usual, I learned something new. Never even heard the term galoot before (guess it’s not used much in New Jersey), but now it’s a tough choice between galoot and nincompoop, they’re both fun words. Now, about the origination of the word nincompoop…..

    1. Hey, Carole! So glad that you enjoyed the story! “Galoot’ is not exactly an everyday expression. . .but it was used a great deal in the 50’s Westerns on TV and in film. Guess that shows ya how old I am!!! 🙂

  2. antia,
    Thanks for posting this. I use a lot of this terminology just in everyday use. It is still in use here in rural Mo, where I was raised. I still use the term “brush popping” for when I hit the rough country with a young horse or mule to teach him about things touching him.

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