Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Westernisms or ‘cowboy talk’ enriched language of Old West


As a writer, I enjoy words, their meanings and their origin. As someone who enjoys reading and writing about life in the Old West, I really enjoy the various Westernisms or “cowboy talk” that enriched the language of the Old West.

Take the word “paint,” for example. I ran onto several colorful (pardon the pun) uses of the word. (My source for most things regarding Western lingo is the wonderful book I’ve mentioned in several articles at this site: “Dictionary of the American West” by Winfred Blevins.)

paint for war — This expression meant to get ready for a fight in “cowboy talk.” It was an allusion to the many well-known customs of Native American warriors who put on war paint before going into battle. So if you were “fixin’ fer a fight” you’d be sure to “paint for war,” doing whatever it took to prepare for whatever fight you were getting into.

paint your tonsils — According to Blevins’ book, “paint your tonsils” among cowboys and other saloon-goers meant to drink whiskey. On the other hand, he points out, it was said of those who overdid the whiskey or other strong spirits to the point of drunkenness — were said to have “painted your nose.” I have no idea why the mixed metaphor, but that’s the point and the fun of language!

paint — Most commonly, “paint” by itself was the term for a spotted horse, generally white with black, brown, or red spots in its coat. The term “paint” was more of an Easternism, with “pinto” used more commonly in the West. Both a “paint” or “painted horse” and a “pinto” were the same color animal. Interestingly, Blevins suggests “old timers” around horses kept paints or pintos more for show, feeling they were probably inferior to other horses regarding physical endurance. He also suggests this may have been part of cowboy prejudice against Indians, since pintos were considered a horse bred by Indians.

Fascinating, and fun, to see the way Western culture defined itself and showed colorful use of the language, isn’t it? Part of the fun of reading and writing Westerns is to listen to the uniqueness of the language!