Rants from the Hill: How to Cuss in Western

When “Airin’ the Lungs” is registered at the swear jar.


“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

A few days ago I was in conversation with a friend when, as is my habit, I casually described a prominent local politician as chickenshit, while also characterizing this representative’s self-important, disingenuous prattle as horseshit. To my surprise, my buddy looked at me quizzically and requested a clarification of the distinction between the shit of a chicken and that of a horse. This struck me as a low point in the history of human communication. After all, it ought to be immediately apparent that horseshit is bullshit, while chickenshit, a different matter entirely, is moral cowardice. What had become of our ability to curse effectively, let alone colorfully? If we can’t communicate through the use of profanity, I wondered, what the hell is left? Sonnets?

That evening over a tumbler of rye I decried the profound illiteracy of my well-meaning friend, whose lexicon of fecal euphemisms was so tragically impoverished. My wife Eryn, instead of supporting me as a good life partner should, instead turned the tables by suggesting that I curse too much. “Are you shitting me?” I asked in shocked reply. “I’m a writer, honey. I invoke profanity only when driven to it by an absolute need for precision.” At this point our owl-eared young daughters joined the conversation from down the hall, affirming loudly that, in fact, “Dad cusses way too much!” My further protestations precipitated the girls’ suggestion that we set up a “swear jar,” the proceeds of which we agreed to donate to Animal Arc, our local wildlife rehabilitation center. “Fine,” I replied. “Name your price. And prepare to break the bad news to that crippled sow bear that she’ll have to suck her paws this winter, because they won’t be able to buy her a dam . . . a damp apple with what I’ll be putting in that jar. Poor thing. She loves damp apples, too.” It was soon decided that each swear word would require a fifty-cent contribution from whomever should so utterly lack self-control as to let one slip. 

I learned a lot in that first week of living with the swear jar. The first thing I learned is that I have absolutely no verbal self-control and that my reliance on profanity is not only excessive but perfectly astonishingly. It soon became clear that the contents of the swear jar were on pace to eclipse the girls’ college savings, and that was without a single contribution from anyone else in the family. Worse, I learned that it was impossible for me to pay only fifty cents per curse, because immediately upon swearing I would recognize my error, which would, of course, cause me to swear. So it was a one-buck minimum every time I slipped, which occurred approximately every ninety seconds of each waking hour. And, by the way, I’m an insomniac.

I like to think of myself as a New West kind of guy, but all this regulation and penalizing of what I view as an essential mode of self-expression caused me to wonder what the tradition of profanity in the Old West might have been. It turns out that the pedigree of swearing in the West—and such swearing was once referred to with the beautiful phrase airin’ the lungs—is in fact quite distinguished. Profanity, slang, vernacular, and hyperbole were once woven deeply into the fabric of western life and manners. In fact, many of the flamboyant expressions pioneered by early cowboys, miners, and gamblers are still part of our American vocabulary. We all know what it means to be a bad egg, or to be bamboozled, or to have a bee in your bonnet. And even if we’ve forgotten the difference between chickenshit and horseshit, we remember what it means to be buffaloed, to be in cahoots, or to get something done by hook or by crook. After all, if you don’t cool your heels you might end up dead as a doornail. You may have a hard row to hoe (note to Millennials: row not road), but if you have a mind to pony up instead of being a skinflint and making tracks you might end up with enough coin to shake a stick at instead of winding up tuckered out and mad as a hornet. Gold miners taught us that although we all want to hit pay dirt, not everything we attempt in life will pan out. Cowboys reminded us to first hold our horses and then to strike while the iron is hot. Trail cooks suggested, none too politely, that we should quit our bellyaching. Sheepherders helped us see what it means to be on the fence or dyed in the wool; they also made stories into yarns, which they spun, sometimes in order to fleece the listener. As a writer and a certified curmudgeon, I especially appreciate that early printers expressed the feeling of being out of sorts—a term that refers to the grouchy mood brought on when a printer runs out of letters while setting type.

Of course it might be just as well that we’ve let a few of these old sayings fade into trail dust. It is perhaps wise that we no longer refer to facing a difficult undertaking as having big nuts to crack. All in all, though, we’ve lost more than we’ve gained. I wish we still referred to procrastination as beating the devil around the stump. I’d like to be able to say, when I’m in hurry, that I’m about to mizzle, burn the breeze, spudgel, light a shuck, marble, cut dirt, put my licks in, or, best of all, absquatulate. And why should I apologize for having forgotten something when I might instead say that I disremembered it—a term that is more honest, since my selective memory is actually a subversive form of passive resistance. For example, I seem routinely to disremember my children’s elementary school talent shows—where, if I were so unfortunate as to remember them, I would be subjected to an interminable lineup of kids breathlessly shrieking out Taylor Swift songs in voices that could worm a sheep.

As I began to lamp that if I didn’t mend my ways and hobble my latchpan I was going to be in for it, I fetched up on the idea of just blathering western all the time. (Translation: Observing that if I didn’t change for the better and be quiet I would get into trouble, I decided to speak in western slang constantly.) That way I could say exactly what I wanted to, do it forcefully and colorfully, and not have to arrange for direct deposit of my paycheck to the damned swear jar.

My first idea was to cuss out my boss, just to catch the weasel asleep and acknowledge the corn (surprise him by speaking the truth about his shortcomings). I’ll swear an oath that this big bug is crooked as a Virginia fence (testify that this self-important oaf is corrupt); truth told, the scoundrel could swallow a bag of nails and cough up corkscrews. He’s so weak north of his ears that he couldn’t hit the ground with his hat in three throws, so ugly he’d make a freight train take a wagon trail, and so mean he’d steal a fly from a blind spider. So I swaggered into his office and set to frumping him for a shanny (began mocking him as a fool). “Bill,” says I, “you’re a no count flannel mouth chiseling chuckleheaded gadabout coffee boiler (no good, smooth-talking, dishonest, ignorant, jawflapping, lazy ass), and if you reckon you can fob me out of my oof with your rumbumptious monkey shines, then you’ve got the wrong pig by the tail. (If you think you can con me out of my money with your pompous tricks, you’ve picked the wrong guy to mess with). I’m reverent as a kedge gully washer and death on slimsey, rag-propered lickfingers like you. (I’m powerful as a big storm and dangerous to feeble, overdressed ass kissers like you. And here I pause to editorialize that lickfinger is the greatest euphemism for obsequiousness ever invented.) I’ll go at you hammer and tongs and exfluncticate you all to flinders until you plain hang up your fiddle. (Reader, you’ve got this one, right?). Well, Bill was not only difficulted by my sayings, but downright funkified, so I just sidled out of his office with a satisfied squinny. (He was both perplexed and scared—yes, funkified means scared!—by what I said, so I walked coolly away with a satisfied chuckle.)

Well, I was feeling above snakes from getting the drop on my boss with my pink westernized lingo, so I trampoosed two whoops and a holler over to the watering hole to check my capital bar dog. (Happy at having insulted my boss with my brilliant regional vernacular, I strolled to the nearby bar to see my preferred bartender). “Dondo,” says I, bustin’ through the swinging doors of the Risky Biscuit Saloon, “you know plain right that I’m a dabster lapper (know very well that I’m an expert drinker), and that I’m here to get corned (tipsy), fuddled (slightly drunk), slewed (moderately drunk), whittled (quite drunk) and, directly, full as a tick (very drunk). Bend my elbow, partner! Set me up (pour me) some of that anti-fogmatic (whiskey), tanglefoot (whiskey), and snake poison (whiskey), and bust out some bumblebee (whiskey), clinch mountain (whiskey), and coffin varnish (whiskey) to boot! I’m going whole hog (all the way) to paint my tonsils (drink) until I’m roostered (extremely drunk) and snapped (thoroughly drunk), so spread out a general treat (a free round) of pop skull (whiskey), jack of diamonds (whiskey), prairie dew (whiskey), and rebel soldier (whiskey) for these here lushingtons (fellow drinkers). Set up red eye (whiskey), bottled courage (whiskey), rookus juice (whiskey), and oh-be-joyful (whiskey) for every last poke down the rail (man at the bar). Now, Dondo, go at it like you’re killing rattlers (energetically)! Crate up the sheepherder’s delight and tarantula juice (put away the cheap whiskey) and bust out some dynamite (whiskey) and neck oil (whiskey). You know I won’t shoot the crow (leave the saloon without paying), so put up the washy stingo (weak beer) and get the scamper juice (whiskey) and family disturbance (whiskey) flowing! Liquor me on sheep dip (pour me whiskey) until I’ve a brick in my hat (am unthinkably drunk) and I wake with roaring case of barrel fever (a massive hangover)!

The Jersey Lily in Ingomar, Montana. By Flickr user akahawkeyefan.

Well, I carried on in that style of blusteration for twenty minutes, until I had used up all fifty-six of the westernisms for whiskey that I’d recently learned. When I was finally through, Dondo just handed me a cup of black coffee—and his hoothouse blackwater, by the way, could float a pony—and then he phoned Eryn to ask her to come pick me up.

The down side of my experiment with talking western was that not even my family—or, more importantly, my bartender—could understand a word I was saying. The up side was that I was able to air my lungs without being fired, or even having to pay into the swear jar. In fact, I soon took up a more formal approach to western cussing, adopting such stock terms as crimany, jiminy, pshal, and I vum. But my favorite curse, one that is absolutely authentic to the Old West, and to which my own identity drew me magnetically, is I Dad! I don’t know what it means, but I know from experience that it’s true. Sure, I cuss too much. Sure, I’m ornery as a cross-eyed mule. But even with all my flaws, I Dad! Even my children agree.

I reckon by this point I’ve more or less gone to seed. Certain I’ve been out in the high desert so long I know the lizards by their first names. And maybe Eryn is right that I should drop the wonderful expression hot as a whorehouse on nickel night from this Rant. But right there it is anyways, because I don’t cotton to buckling under when it comes to hammering out ace high literary art. Until the day I cash in and get planted in the bone orchard, I’m going to keep after being a scrapping slang whanger who goes across lots to string a whizzer for you. And if I do swack up a stretcher now and again, I’ll ride a long slipe to be a buster who’s a huckleberry above a persimmon. And that, pardner, ain’t no horseshit.

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