Notes From The Frontier
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
CURSING WAS A INTEGRAL PART OF FRONTIER CULTURE
Let’s face it: The Wild West was an example of what happens when testosterone is completely unfettered! Sociologists have discussed how violence—usually fueled by alcohol—was a major theme in frontier life. Language, too, was part of male “posturing” and rough language was used to demonstrate toughness, so guns or other weapons wouldn’t have to be used. But, of course, language also caused plenty of gun play!
The great tv series, Deadwood, has often been criticized for its copious use of profanity of the worst variety. (Specifically, the f-word and its many variants.) Great debates have flared over this issue, some almost intellectual, some less so. David Milch, the creator of Deadwood, maintained that cussing was a central part of the early frontier, especially in the toughest towns in the west, like Deadwood and Tombstone. And he is adamant that the particularly naughty words his potty-mouthed TV characters use are absolutely authentic.
But Jesse Sheidlower, the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of the scholarly volume, The F-Word, begs to differ. “There were cursing contests when cowboys would get together and insult each other,” Sheidlower says. But “the evidence that we have is that they were using more religious blasphemy than the sexual insults which are popular today.” Sheidlower adds that the f-word, used as an “intensifier,” wasn’t really used commonly in the United States as such until World War I. So, the 43 times the f-word was blurted in one Deadwood episode was “inauthentic,” he maintains.
To counter linguistic scholars, Milch wrote a book called “The New Language of the Old West.” In it he says the obscenity of the West was indeed, 'striking,' but the obscenity of mining camps was unbelievable.” To be sure, the f-word and all its inglorious variants were used in the Old West. (But probably not 43 times per hour!) According to Oxford Dictionary, the f-word dates back to at least the 1400s and came from cognates of the Germanic languages: German ficken (to copulate), Dutch fokken (to breed or beget), Norwegian fukka (to copulate), Swedish focka (to copulate) and fock (penis). Certainly other vulgar nasties were also used on the frontier, like the one that also means a rooster, the one that starts with “c” and rhymes with stunt, or the one that sounds like “manhole” but starts with “a,” just to name a few.
So what language did cowboys, saloon patrons and garden-variety frontier pioneers use to express themselves profanely? You’d be surprised. They might say “I set to frumping him for a shanny,” which meant I made fun of him as a fool. Accusing someone of “rumbumptious monkey shines” meant they were trying to trick folks. Calling someone a “flannel-mouthed chiseling chuckleheaded gadabout coffee boiler” meant they were a no good, smooth-talking, dishonest, ignorant, jawflapping, lazy ass. A “rag-propered lickfingers” was an over-dressed ass-kisser.
Saloon vernacular was especially colorful. A “dabster lapper” of “rookus juice” was an expert whiskey drinker. Whiskey itself had more names than ants on a June bug: red eye, oh-be-joyful, scamper juice, family disturbance, tarantula juice, prairie juice, coffin varnish, clinch mountain, sheep dip, etc. Washy stingo was weak beer. Hoothouse blackwater was coffee.
There were mildly naughty swear words, some of which we recognize today: damn, crap, bitch, bastard, and shit in its many variants. But, “Dad” was usually used in place of God, as in “dad-blame it.” Dratted was used for damned, “Dickens” for devil, and “tarnation” for hell. The problem with researching Victorian profanity was that respected scholars were excessively straight-laced and would not put in print those uncensored and verboten words that were spoken in unrestrained settings. Even pants or trousers were called “inexpressibles” because legs were considered too private!
So maybe Deadwood writer David Milch was just a flannel-mouthed, chiseling, chuckleheaded gadabout coffee boiler. But then again, maybe he can be forgiven because if he had used truly authentic frontier language, modern television viewers wouldn’t have understood what in the heck anyone was saying!
What is certain is that profanity was used not only as male posturing but male bonding. And there are many accounts of male immigrants and Native Americans, as well as female outlaws learning white male swear words as a way to communicate and bridge cultural and gender divides. Calamity Jane, Stagecoach Mary, Belle Starr, and other female frontier fatales were all purported to use profanity.
U.S. cavalry officers who wrote their memoirs of various Indian wars wrote of strange exchanges with Native warriors during the lulls in fighting in which they’d hurl verbal insults in each others’ languages across the battlefield. Cavalry soldiers who participated in the Nez Perce War of 1877 with Chief Joseph and his warriors published their own accounts of battles with the renown chief that became known as the “Red Napoleon” in newspapers across the nation.
The long lulls in shooting between warriors and soldiers on the battlefield of the Bear Paw in Montana prompted bizarre colloquies across the killing expanse. Late in the afternoon, an Army scout fluent in Nez Perce yelled out a challenge: “Come out and fight, you bastards!” A Nez Perce warrior answered in plain English: “You come! Try to take our hair!”
Nez Perce warriors overheard General Miles yell to his men, “Charge them to hell!” A bemused Nez Perce fighter adept in English cursing taunted: “Charge, hell! You sons of bitches! You aren’t fighting goddamned Sioux!” Nez Perce laughter and whoops erupted from rifle pits across the hillsides.
In an odd way, both cultures were strangely touched that the other side had bothered to learn profanity in their own tongue. It was the ultimate male compliment.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted July 11, 2019