Meridian Star

May 31, 2013

Cowboy language; Keeping it simple

By Brian Livingston /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Someone has said writers are people who can't leave words alone, and it is true. I have written about the economy of letters in cowboy names; it being somewhat of a waste to use more than three letters to a name. The reluctance of cowboys to say much has always fascinated me as well, because it would seem that someone who rarely sees many folks would like to chat some when they do.

    When I worked in the western cowboy country, I spent some of my time with them noticing their characteristic thriftiness in the use of the language. Some of the real cowboys I observed were Dex, Sam, Jay Tom, and Mac. Those who actually worked for me were Bob, Lex, Jim, and Scot. Take a look at how their lives are defined with short words; terse, one-syllable ones. What do they do? They ride, rope, brand, shoot, fight, sleep, eat, drink, sing, dream, live and die. They are usually working with a herd, cow, calf, bull, steer or stray. It is as if the American cowboy gave us the simplicity in our language.

    Take for example how they communicate creature comforts: grub, cook, pan, pot, beans, hat, coat, shirt, jeans, belt, boots, gun, bunk. No point in wasting syllables when describing their environment either: hot, cold, dust, smoke, rain, snow, sleet, hail, wind, storm, town, trail, camp, sun, moon, stars, bright, dark; all one syllable words.

    And some of their monosyllabic words have multiple uses, preempting the need for additional words. For instance herd is not only the cattle, it also is what you do with them. Trail, besides being the route to Abilene, is also the act of tracking a lost steer. And smoke not only gets into one's eyes around the campfire, but it also is a much more austere way of saying cigarette.

    Perhaps the cowboy's frugality with words and letters in language is rooted in the Spartan life they lead, usually making do with what is on their backs and on the backs of their faithful mounts, tied behind the saddle in a small roll. I don't know.

    My curiosity led me to look at some of the multi-syllable words that find their way into a cowboy's life.

    What I found was that most of these oversize words mean trouble (itself one of those overencumbered words). Think of how these words weigh on a cowboys mind and subconscious: stampede, thunder, lightning, whiskey, sheriff, rattlesnake, fever, homesick, frostbite, sunburn, doctor, and in the old days when the language of the trail was in its formative years, Indians.

    Maybe this is a clue to why the cowboys stay with single syllables and why they all have three-letter or single-syllable names. And why their communication has evolved to the point where they refrain from using words at all when a simple gesture will do.