Cowboy Words

categories: Cocktail Hour


Absquatulating Cowboy

I’ve been collecting oddball words for many years, always called them cowboy words, since they sound to me made up to cover situations smart but poorly educated wild-west types might find themselves in, certainly the case with “absquatulate.”  I’d like any help you might have with etymologies and meanings of the following (beyond the usual dictionary stuff), but also citations—where have you seen these words lately?  But most of all I’d like more words for the list.  Any candidates?  And are these really of a type?  I notice a lot of double vowels, a lot of double consonants, too, lots of multi-syllabics, for three things, also lots of ways to say “uproar.”  In this economy, I’m figuring maybe some of you have a lot of time on your hands!

Absquatulate: to leave a place or situation, abscond (cowboy Latin).

Balderdash: nonsense

Ballyhoo: uproar

Bamboozle: con

Bodacious: outrageously uninhibited, remarkable

Boondocks, boonies: far from civilization

Boondoggle: Government or other project that’s a waste of money

Bootleg: illegal or conterfeit goods, esp whiskey, or now music…

Brouhaha: uproar.  Firesign Theater.  Turns out to be French.

Canoodle: to make out.

Catchpenny: cheap, poor quality goods

Catywampus: topsy-turvy

Dilly-dally: loiter or vacillate

Dingbat: type ornament between sections, under titles, etc.  Also a nincompoop.

Discombobulate: disconcert

Flabbergasted: amazed

Flapdoodle, flamdoodle: nonsense.

Flibbertigibbet: flighty, gossipy (onomatopoeic origin?)

Gaberlunzie: a wandering beggar

Galumph: moving heavily, clumsily (one of Lewis Carroll’s great phonesthemics)

Gerrymander: build political districts with political motives (Gerry + salamander)

Hardscrabble: rough and tumble, poor soil.

Hellacious: really fucking difficult or just amazing.

Hi-jinks: noisy schemes (from a drinking game, c. 17th century)

High-falutin’: pretentious

Hoe-down: hootenanny

Hootenanny: hoe-down

Hornswoggle: cheat or con

Hullabaloo: uproar

Jamboree: big gathering, as in Boy Scouts

Kit and kaboodle: everything plus the kitchen sink.

Lollygag: loaf (I loafe and invite my soul—Whitman)

Nincompoop: Dingbat, meaning two (see circular definition).

Persnickety: Uptight, overly particular/

Poppycock: flapdoodle.  Also a stale x-mas confection made with popcorn.

Ramshackle: rickety construction.

Rapscallion: rascal

Scallywag: Rapscallion, George W. Bush

Shebang: a civil-war era temporary hut, and therefore a wobbly structure.

Shemozzle: uproar.  Found in Zola’s Germinale. Maybe from Yiddish?

Shenanigans: hi-jinks.

Shilly-shally: dilly-dally.

Shivaree: noisy celebration.  Shake it.

Skedaddle: absquatulate

Snollygoster: a clever, unscrupulous person, Dick Cheney.

Splendiferous: really wonderful.  An actual, serious word back in 1475.

Tatterdemalion: hobo.

Thingamabob: Widget.

Topsy-turvy: turvy-topsy.

Widget: whatchamacallit

Willy-nilly: arbitrarily

A few notes of the type I’m looking for:

Gerrymander (given that it’s election day).  “It is a process named after its inventor, Elbridge Gerry, a 19th Century Democratic governor of Massachusetts.  Largely to protect incumbents, after every 10-year census of the local population there is a redrawing of Congressional districts, crating salamander-like shapes designed to make one party’s voters a winning majority.”  The Washington Spectator, Dec. 1, 2002.  28:22 page 3.

Shemozzle:  “That encouraged Maheu to let himself go:  ‘God’s truth!  I’m not a rich man, but I would gladly give a hundred sous so as not to die before seeing [justice for working class]!  What a grand shemozzle, eh?  Will it come soon, and how shall we set about it?’”  –found in Zola’s Germinal, 1885 trans. L.W. Tancock, Penguin Classics, 1954.  [great political novel about coal mining and nascent union movements, btw.]

Poppycock: ibid, pg. 350

Balderdash: ibid, pg. 350.

Catchpenny: ibid, pg.452.  “By the third day the Paris press had added the disaster to its stock of catchpenny sensations, and people talked of nothing else buy miners dying at the bottom of the pit and greedily scanned the dispatches in each morning’s issue.”

Willy-nilly: ibid, pg. 468

Shenanigan, Brouhaha, Hullabaloo, all used in a single Fedex commercial, c. 1995

  1. Dick Weaver writes:

    Bill, Cathy and I have been using (for some time) “wazzed out” in place of “freaked out”. It seems to be our own invention, but most folks understand what we mean.


  2. Peter Peteet writes:

    I been trying to banish the balderdash and capture a cowboy word for you from these wild lands but irregardless where I shoot or how many times I leave I find no novelty under this sunset.Guess I’m mostly boots and hat,Cowcatcher called Bartram Puc-pugy,How’s that?
    Ya might like the word wrangling here
    they love/hate new words,wordcraft;somebody has to be the modern Matlack and Shallus.

  3. Susan Pearsall writes:

    Here’s a few more: chicanery, diddly, doggoned, floozy, and ruckus.

    As in “That doggoned floozy don’t know diddly, but she sure raised a ruckus with her foolish chicanery.”

    My kids would probably think this was a foreign language. What does Elysia say?

  4. Margaret Shepherd writes:

    When my Grandmother met someone she thought of as an idiot, she called him a “Honyock”. For some reason, I want to say it was some Hungarian slang….

  5. Chick Beckley writes:

    These aren’t what you are looking for, but this is one of my favorite double-speak routines ever. This guy winged this as a warm up for a legitimate commercial. What brilliance…

  6. SunRose writes:

    Hoe-down seems obvious… you finally get to put your hoe down and have a darn-tootin’ good time.

    Fun list of words. Reminds me of my dad who was known to pull out new phrases and words at the drop of a hat; usually originating from his southern, farming roots. I wish I could remember half of them.

  7. Richard Gilbert writes:

    My father loved a made-up, pretentiously technical-sounding word he’d tease me with when I asked too many questions: syrinsification. I don’t know where he got it. And no matter how I spell it, I’ve never found it defined or listed anywhere.

  8. Pamela Painter writes:

    What about “oodgey”–as in “unsettled,” “a bit anxious,” but in a sweet way. I’ve used it in stories and it always flies, but editors usually question it.

    • Bill writes:

      oodgey, wow… I can use your stories as citations! have you ever found it or heard it elsewhere?

      • Pamela Painter writes:

        I don’t know where I picked up oodgey. (It always gets a red line under it.) Do you know how to pronounce it? As in “could” or “whoosh”–but long and sliding into that great “dg.”

      • Bob Stickgold writes:

        Oodgey? I use it all the time. Now my students do to. It may have a Yiddish origin, but don’t really know. Pamela uses it exactly the way I do.

        Go Pamela!

  9. Michael writes:

    Bill: This is terrific. Thanks! I’m going to spend my day trying to use all these words correctly and puzzle the staff with my unusual word choice.

  10. Beverly Littlefield writes:

    Not to mention a “pistarkle.”

    • Bill writes:

      Whoa. I put this one to and got “Did you mean ‘pustules in dogs?'” No, I didn’t mean ‘pustules in dogs.” Any help, Beverly?

  11. Amy Lamborn writes:

    Dang ! they just keep on a’comin…rootin tootin, darndest, mosey, dunderhead, chucklehead, wiseacre, high sterics…

  12. Amy Lamborn writes:

    Why thankya Bill for inspiring me with a constructive use of my time ! Here’s a few more: cockamamie, jimdandy, smack dab, dadgum, whatsit, whatnot, prognosticate, whippersnapper, harum scarum, darn tootin’, country bumpkin, bejeezus, ornery, crackerjack, critter, cussed/cussedest/cussedness, cantankerous, jamboree, yay high, podunk…

  13. monica wood writes:

    I think this is a word only in my family: ducavore. It means (to us) a boorish jerk, but not of the Rush Limbaugh typology, more of the I-snarfed-your-portion-of-the-pie-on-purpose variety. Pronounced DOO-ka-vore. We use it daily, alas.

    • Bill writes:

      We had something in my large family (not as large as yours…) called the slow-eater’s tax… clean your plate or lose it!

    • Margaret Shepherd writes:

      Oh, my Dad used that word a lot! Never new the meaning, just that he would call one of my brothers by that word frequentlly.

  14. Beverly Littlefield writes:
    • Bill writes:

      There it is–a citation and plausible etymology for absquatulate, and several much better words from the same era… Thanks, Beverly!

  15. John Jack writes:

    Reaching for a word words; whosits, whatsits, thingamajig, so-and-so, whatchamacallit, doohickey, dew jigger, thingamabob.

    Words that substitute for taking a deity’s name in vein: geekus crow, gosh shucks, for cripe’s sake, Larry have mercy,

    I know dingbat as a Southren Down East regional idiom for the paddle of that vacuous tourist trap toy with the rubber ball on an elastic string, thus a term for tourists–dingbatter–who come and go like their money along with stocking the toy on tourist shop store shelves. Dingbats were at one time battens placed across wet clay tablets while scribing to avoid marking the soft clay with stray dings. Later, during the age of metal type, dingbats were decorative type art ligatures evenly bordering a type galley so the edges of the precious letter type weren’t mashed or rounded by the pressure of a platten press.

    Dit-dot is another local idiom for the dingbatter come here’s who came for a visit and didn’t go away, or the people further west who think they can tell you what’s best for the people east’ard. Its etymology is cloudy. One old-timer says a dit is a pimple and a dot is a boil.

    • Bill writes:

      Criminy, John, these are great…

      • John Jack writes:

        Thanks, Bill. It’s good to receive positive validation, almost as rewarding as giving it.

        Mommick or mummick from the coastal Carolinas derive from a Middle English term, mammock, noun and tntransitive verb, meaning tattered scraps and such or to tear into fragments, circa 1529 according to Webster’s, etymology unknown. I know it from papermaking and printmaking lore handed down from master through apprentice as the name given to mounds of cotton rags collected by Royal rag pickers for papermaking. Patience be, “em’s young-ins hectic doings ’bout mommicked my last nerve.

  16. Bridget Montgomery writes:

    Hi Bill, my long-time favorite is bloviate and its related words, especially bloviator – so useful, so aften applicable in the legal world, where pretentious, long-winded talkers are a dime a dozen. I get to use the word at least once a week in my line of work.

    Attributed at times to Warren Harding, much ridiculed by H.L. Mencken.

    A minor historical note: In the late 70s, in Ithaca, we had a Halloween party at Jill Ganon’s house, don’t recall if you were there. The loosely suggested theme was “noble royalty,” which, of course seemed particularly funny to us, who hadn’t the proverbial pot to utilize at the time. I went as the noblewoman Lady Gillian Cornelius Wentworth, wife of the famous aviator and bloviator Lord Bull Duckett Wentwoth, who could not be with us because he was off competing in the All-England Blovathan, which had been going on for four months at the time. . .and may still be going on.

    Pictures and my name tag for the event (the Halloween party not the Blovathan) are in my tattered box of Ithaca memorabilia. That’s right, I’m not one to give up on a useless piece of memorabilia just because it’s got a little age to it (last line adapted from maybe my all-time favorite, the original Lonesome Dove).


    • Bill writes:

      bloviate makes the list, with all permutations, and let’s think of a word for useless scraps of memoribilia… I don’t remember the party, Bridget, but I do have a powdered wig in my scrap book from the era…

      • Bridget Montgomery writes:

        For a fourth word to describe uproar, you might consider donnybrook, a fine old word and another of my favorites. Though it is one I only think when referring to a silly public fight, as to say it aloud would risk an accusation that I am a pretentious bloviating lawyer.

        • Bill writes:

          Bridget, I thought of another–kerfuffle–always a lot of words for the fine things of life…

  17. Amy Lamborn writes:

    New word: to “reluct” to do something.

  18. Tommy writes:

    Impressive and entertaining list. I’m trying to make sense of “the whole shebang” now that I know shebang as a temporary, wobbly structure??

    • john e. harvey writes:

      I am shocked, even Discombobulated like a Flabbergasted Gaberlunzie whose Persnicketty horse has Absquatulated during the Bodacious Shivaree coming from the High-falutin Hootenanny like a Galumphing Scallywag of a Tatterdemalion caught red-handed in a quick Bamboozle of angry Texicans.

      What’s all the Hullabaloo about? Where is that great word you introduced me to? You know the one — it means having well-shaped buttocks – “callipygian”

      And I must apologize for my Catywampus Balderdash. Living in the Boondocks has affected my brain box.

      Actually, callipygian doesn’t really meet the definition for a cowboy word, does it?

    • Bill writes:

      I’ve seen a lot of pretty vague explanations of “the whole shebang.” Anyone got a good one? Maybe it’s something like the house of cards or the kitchen sink, an elastic image used in lots of ways, this one till the original inspiration has been forgotten?