A Guide to Cowboy Lingo From the Old West

A Guide to Cowboy Lingo From the Old West

Howdy, folks! Ever wanted to know the way real cowboys talked?

There are billions of cowboy words, sayings, and phrases, but we went for those that have some great background story or those that are in use today, but had a different meaning back then in the old west. Some of them entered the list just for sounding very cool! I hope you will have a hog-killing time by reading this article!

Double Crosser. Illiteracy was widespread in the Old West. Folks that couldn’t sign for themselves just would mark an “X” on legal documents. If they wanted to void the contract, they would just add another “X” on top of the first one.  That act violated “The Code of the West,” which was that a man’s word was his bond.


Bender. This expression was used for people who would drink a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. Bender, the robot with a drinking problem from the popular animated TV show “Futurama” first came to my mind. Matt Groening, you are a genius!

Dude. Word “dude” was used in several ways. In popular newspapers, the dude was a new word for a “dandy”, a man dressed by the latest fashion. In cowboy culture, it was a mocking name to describe the wealthy easterners coming to the west, unfamiliar with the life outside of the city. In 1960’s surfers adopted this term and gave it a meaning it has today.

Yellow-belly. Although the word was not strictly used in the Old West, people see it that way because it was exploited in Western movies.

Howdy. It is believed that the word has originated as a shortened form of the greeting “How do ye do?” First recorded evidence of the term goes back in 1840’s. It was a common word in Southern U.S. Alternative explanation says that it was a word born thanks to the inability of the Natives to pronounce “How do ye do?” in early encounters with Europeans. Although it is hardly true, it would explain how it spread from the American South.


Caught red handed. This phrase is pretty self-explanatory. It simply means to get busted while doing something wrong. In the past, it meant to be caught with blood on your hands, as a result of killing an animal that didn’t belong to you. By the laws back then, having a fresh meat in possession wasn’t enough evidence to get you convicted. But if you had a fresh blood of the animal on your hands, you bought yourself a one-way ticket to the jail.
All Down But Nine. The phrase is used when people are completely missing the point of the story or don’t understand a single thing about a topic. It originated from bowling and it means to miss all nine pins. Yes, bowling was often played in the Old West.


Dressed to kill. Nowadays, this phrase means a compliment. When somebody is dressed to kill…well, you know it. Americans in the old west used it simply to describe a man wearing double guns. Why else would somebody hold two guns unless he is ready to shoot someone? If you really want to dress to kill, you need one of these


Dead man’s hand. Those playing poker are very well aware of the meaning of the phrase. If you have a pair of 8’s and a pair of aces, you have a dead man’s hand. But what the hell does a dead man has to do with everything? Originally it meant you have a full house in your hand. the adoption of the different meaning has to do with the books published in the 1920’s about the famous western showman Wild Bill Hickok. Legend tells the story that Wild Bill was shot in the back while holding two black eights and two black aces in the hand. The legend has never been verified, but it is one hell of a story and a phrase still used among card players.


Bite the dust.  It is not a word that had originated from the old West, but cowboys sure new how to subverted old phrases to suit them right. It means to be thrown from a horse. In antic Greece, the phrase has been used differently. It meant to be slaughtered in combat. Among the cowboys today, it still refers to the abrupt unsaddling, but the general population uses it in the original sense, thanks to Westerns.

Also, here are some common cowboy sayings that are packed with wisdom and worth remembering:

Don’t go looking for trouble. You’ll get your share in life.

A gun and three of a kind always beat three of a kind.

Liquor will make you see double and feel single.

I’d like to buy him for what he’s worth, and sell him for what he thinks he is.

Don’t blame the cow when the milk gets sour.


And finally, it wouldn’t be right to talk about cowboy lingo & western slang without mentioning John Wayne. Watch below to see the best John Wayne quotes compiled in to a video:


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