Dictionary of the American West, by Winfred Blevins

Review by Abby Quillen

American West – May 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

Dictionary of the American West: Over 5,000 Terms from Aarigaa! to Zopilote
by Winfred Blevins
Published in 2001 by Sasquatch Books.
ISBN 1-57061-304-4

ERNEST HEMINGWAY once said that “if a writer needs a dictionary he should not write. He should have read the dictionary at least three times from beginning to end and then have loaned it to someone who needs it.”

If you’re an aspiring Western writer and you want to heed Hemingway’s advice, I’d suggest tackling Winfred Blevins’ Dictionary of the American West before you sit down with the 22 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.

But Blevins’ book should please anyone with an interest in Western lore, writer or not. At 448 pages, with many photos and illustrations, it’s a quick read, and with definitions for words like hurdy-gurdy girl, son-of-a-bitch stew, and drug-store cowboy, it’s an entertaining one.

Unlike other dictionaries, it’s not only easy to read this book from cover to cover, but that might actually be the best way to read it. What emerges in Blevins’ compilation of terms is a uniquely Western language, one that is rich and textured, colorful and metaphorical, a hodgepodge of cowboy terms, Indian-Pidgin English, Spanish words, and terms used by miners, fur trappers, and mountain men.

Although in some circles, it may sound uneducated to speak like a Westerner, the sayings of the West are strikingly vivid and illustrative. Consider all of the Western expressions for dying: “to cash in your chips,” to “cross the great divide,” to “ride an old paint with your face to the wind,” to “turn your toes to the daisies,” or to “go belly up.” And then there are the terms “bums on the plush” for the idle rich, “burro milk” for nonsense, and someone “of frying size” for a child. The phrases all but paint pictures.

Don’t expect to find the standard definitions for familiar words in Blevins’ dictionary, though. You might think you know what a boss, an apple, and a chicken are. But, according to this dictionary, “boss” is a term for a cow. “Apple” is what people call “an Indian who’s red on the outside but white on the inside.” And a “chicken” is “a boy or young man … who is a particular friend of an older man.” According to Blevins, “homosexual feelings are surely implied.”

Blevins doesn’t just list Western terms and their definitions. In some cases, he offers in depth discussions and explains the derivations of the words. He devotes a page to the word coyote, explaining all of the ways the word is used, the Indian myths about coyotes, Anglos’ love/hate relation with the animal, and where the word came from. He also defines terms that have the word in them, like “coyote gold,” “coyote days,” and “coyote tobacco.” In a similar manner, he devotes almost three pages to the word Indian.

Blevins also explains where common phrases came from. For instance, he writes that Red-Light District, an area of brothels, is believed to have come from a sporting house called the Red Light in Dodge City, Kansas. And the word “saloonist” is a Westernism for a saloon keeper, even though the word “saloon” appears to have come from the South.

BUT BLEVINS is not always so thorough. In some cases, his definitions seem strangely incomplete. For instance, he gives the definition of “rafter” as “to lie under your blankets with your knees sticking up,” which just leaves the reader wondering where the term came from, why it’s Western, and how it’s used in a sentence.

Many of Blevins’ definitions create more questions than they answer. In fact, many times I wished he had explained where and when a term was used. “Mockey,” which is defined as “a wild mare” is right near “monkey wrencher,” a term coined by Edward Abbey in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. But I doubt these words were (or are) used simultaneously by the same people in the same part of the West. It’s impossible to tell that from Blevins’ dictionary, however. In fact, it’s hard to tell which words are still in use today.

Besides being entertaining, Blevins’ book can also serve as an excellent companion piece to keep on hand while reading Western history or fiction. It includes terms like “pan-Indianism” which you might expect to find in a newspaper article, and “moon-eyed” which might grace a Western Novel. In fact, that’s the reason Blevins wrote the dictionary. He’s an author of Westerns, and some of his fellow Western writers were frustrated that their Eastern editors mauled their works because they weren’t familiar with Western terms. Thus Blevins decided to define those words, and that’s how his dictionary was born.

HOWEVER, IF YOU’RE A Western writer and you want to use the dictionary to enrich your prose, it falls short. If, for instance, you want to look up all of the different terms for coffee in the Old West and you don’t happen to know the terms “Arbuckle” and “jamoka,” you probably won’t find them, because they’re not listed under coffee. I found myself wishing for an index, something that this book, like most dictionaries, doesn’t have. But maybe Blevins will publish a Western thesaurus or a Western-English, English-Western dictionary next.

Perhaps more important than what this dictionary lacks, however, is what it reveals. There’s a myth that the Eskimos have a hundred words for snow because it is such an integral part of their lives. If that’s true, what does it say about the Old West that Blevins lists 70 terms for liquor, 21 terms for prostitute, and 40 words having to do with poker? It certainly doesn’t paint a very refined picture of our heritage.

But the book does reveal a fairly real portrait of our past. In the introduction, Blevins laments that previous dictionaries of the West “leave out women, Indians, Mormons, missionaries, and everyone else who doesn’t cut a big figure in the myth.” But Blevins book is a tribute to Western diversity. It includes Indian Pidgin English, like squaw, firewater, medicine, heap, and how; and Spanish words like alameda, hombre, fiesta, and pronto — along with their Western pronunciations; and terms contributed by cowboys, homesteaders, miners, trappers, railroaders and others.

This dictionary makes it clear that a unique vocabulary emerged in the West, and it also reveals how much the language of the West has shaped American English. As a Westerner, it’s easy to feel insignificant in our country — politically and culturally. After all, most of us studied an American history focused almost entirely on the East; we have less representation in congress than the East, fewer electoral votes, and less stake in federal elections. Perhaps that’s why I was so surprised to find out how many commonplace sayings had their origins in the West, phrases like cabin fever, kowtow, ghost town, hit the trail, and lallygag. The language itself reflects the uniqueness and importance of the West as a region.

So, whether you’re a writer, a reader of Westerns, or just have a casual interest in the American West, go ahead and heed Hemingway’s advice. Read this dictionary from beginning to end — and after that, keep it around to use as a reference.

— Abby Quillen