The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1978, Volume 24, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

A Dictionary of the Old West, 1850-1900. By Peter Watts. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. Line cuts, bibliographies of works cited and works consulted. 399 pages. $12.95.
Reviewed by Ray Brandes, Director of Graduate and Special Programs, University of San Diego, editor of Troopers West (1970) and Costanso’s Diario (1970).

It has been a long time since this reviewer has had an opportunity to read a dictionary, but this one offered some opportunities to refresh my western vocabulary, and find items useful for speech writing and delivery.

The type face set via computer-driven cathode ray tube in various weights is clear, neat and clean and represents display letters of American wood types of the period of the text. Wood cuts enhance the verbiage.

The compiler of the work, Peter Watts, is a British author of Western fiction better known by his pseudonyms Matt Chisholm and Cy James. The work was not meant to be as all encompassing as Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, perhaps the classic work in this field, but rather to cover common phraseology of the period 1850-1900 in our West. Some use of, or references to the the dime-novel jargon of the post 1850’s might have given a few other good examples as a reflection of the more common literature of the period since Harper’s Magazine did give Watts some journalistic jingoisms.

There appears an attempt to place much emphasis on the speech of the bad men—the outlaws, but maybe Watts envisions this work as useful to the writer of Westerns, many of whom perhaps would like to update their vocabulary.

One can find few faults with the work; it is true that the addition of more words would perhaps only have created an unmanageable edition of enormous size, but then maybe a second or third volume is in order.

Beef-issue (28-9) could have pointed out that some millionaire Apache cattlemen today are the grandchildren of those who took live cattle as rations rather than a quarter side of beef at a time as did most Indians, thereby building herds. Border-Shift (42) is as the author states, more seen in Hollywood than it was in real life. Only Sammy Davis Jr., could do it best, regulated with a timing machine strapped to his hips. While on page 85, Mr. Watts referred to chili as a derisive title for a Mexican, he did not refer to chink as a derisive title for a Chinaman, nor did he on the same page use chingadero, an offensive expression in common use then and today. Receipt for recipe might have been included as in Ethel Reed’s Pioneer Kitchen Cookbook which is built around that entire word; presidio (252) is too simply given as a fort when its origins are much deeper in Moorish heritage as is the word adobe (2) from the verb atobar, at one time meaning a mixture of hot spices and meat. Some reference might have been made to scalp hunters like James Kirker, but instead Watts chose to call the men bounty hunters (43) which has to be a Hollywoodian fantasy.

I missed such terms as advanced female, a sarcastic denigration formerly given a woman agitating for or favoring women’s rights; snum meaning I swear or I snum; soak, to pawn or put in soak; bucking the tiger or playing faro; lead plum for a bullet; on the ciudado or dodging the law; puddin’ foot, a big-footed or awkward horse and sin-buster for a preacher.

But then I’m makin smoke (203) with a life preserver (196) over a mother lode (216) of words when I should be rattling my hocks (262) over this wish book (368). A Dictionary of the Old West will be useful to writers of prose, to poets, to screen writers, and to aficionados of Western American history. The material has been selected largely from secondary sources, and some current fiction works, but a few primary works on the West were scanned for colloquialisms. I’m not sure that this will replace the several works of Ramon Adams, Mitford Mathews, or Harold Wentworth, all cited by Watts, for this blankets those volumes, but new volumes should be added to this one, so as to give more dimension—that of an all purpose reference series, with some relationship to the larger derivation or origin of words, such as those brought to this country out of the Anglo-Saxon judicial system.