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Thank you for providing so many definitions and words that were in familiar use in the "old west." I did notice that in your collection, there were no "swear" words which I am sure were in use then. Could you please provide me with some or tell me where I might go to collect some. (Not the "four-letter kind" necessarily.)

Thank you,

R. R.


Aside from the fact that I personally dislike the use of profanity, I haven't listed any "swear" words in the cowboy dictionary for the simple reason that they played little or no part in the common vocabulary of the early cowboys (despite the grossly inaccurate image conveyed by modern TV shows and movies). It's true that sleezeballs and town drunks sometimes used such language back then, but those gutter-crawlers were disdained by the average citizen. Even as a teenager in the 1950s, I don't recall hearing much in the way of off-color conversation. Trash talk seems to be more of a phenomenon of the last 40 or 50 years.

Here are a few of the reasons why profanity was little used back then:

Rodeo prayer time 1. Most folks still had respect tor the third of the Ten Commandments -- "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

Using the Lord's name in vain was looked down on even in the military -- especially if you were under the command of such God-fearing leaders as George Washington, Robert E. Lee, or "Stonewall" Jackson.

Even today, I've noticed that cowboys as a whole tend to be reverent toward God -- in large measure because they live with a constant awareness that a simple slip-up could quickly end their life here on earth. In a few seconds, a cowhand could be face-to-face with the very God whose name he had just used in cussing out an unruly bronco.

2. Most states and communities had laws against the use of vile language in public. Even today in Minnesota -- if the authorities wished to enforce the law fully -- you could be jailed for use of "offensive, obscene, or abusive language tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others."

Cowboys learned to keep a short rein on their tongues so they wouldn't accidently slip and say something inappropriate when in town. Cussing in polite company was probably as likely to land you in the clink as getting drunk was. Even in prison, using profanity where a guard could hear it might win you a quick trip to solitary confinement.

Some ranches even had their own rules about foul language. Longtime Texas cowhand Gaston Fergenson told about the attitude of the Staple Five ranch toward profanity at the dinner table. "We had a rule to enforce table manners. This rule was that any cussing or swearing or telling smutty stories would be punished. This rule received fairly good attention, because the punishment for violating it was a dose of leggens. To administer the punishment, a number of the waddies would hold the violator with his buttock in the air, and a leggen would be applied." (Born June 18, 1861. His father died when Gaston was two years old, and Gaston went to work for for various Texas ranches -- starting when he was between the ages of six and seven.) "Leggen" or "Leggen-straw" referred to a stick, cane, or whip used as a lash in flogging.

3. Profanity is fairly rare in many languages other than English. Most of what we consider "foul language" had its roots in the Saxon dialect. In Spanish -- commonly spoken among ranch hands in the Southwest -- it is rather difficult to give vent to the sort of vulgar talk that is so common in present day English. If you translate "dammit" into Spanish, for example, you get "maldita sea" which literally translates to "may it be badly spoken of." I've spent a bit of time among Hispanic folks, and about the worst thing I've heard said was calling someone a "dog." Even in these foul-mouthed times, one of the common Spanish translations of "swearing" is "insulto" (insult) and perhaps the most frequently used expression is "¡Ai caramba!" -- roughly the equivalent of "gosh," "great guns," or "my goodness."

4. Finally, even in such rough situations as a roundup, workers watched their language because their bosses tended to judge a person's character, in part, on how he talked. A cowhand who kept his conversation clean was generally thought of as having more intelligence, self control, and good sense -- and therefore was more likely to be promoted to foreman or ranch manager than a foul-mouthed worker of equal physical ability. Dirty talk was a good way to lock yourself into dirty jobs for the rest of your life.

I hope this helps a little with your understanding of the REAL Old West cowboys.

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