“See, the thing about John Madrid? He’s an ace high shootist. He’s the kinda man who don’t care a continental ’bout facing up to them road agents who fancy they got the bulge on him when they’s facin’ him three varmints to one, and that don’t change none ’cause these days he’s callin’ hisself a Lancer. So when them three, four desperados figured they could call Scott Lancer a juniper and crowd him a might, they didn’t reckon on ol’ Scott not only bein’ a curly wolf on his own account — ’cos he got a scad o’ sand, that’s fer sure — but that Johnny, seein’ that this was a real hair in the butter sorta day, had Scott’s back. Sure, he sat back and let Scott play with ’em a mite, seein’ as how Scott was real good at sloggin’ and he was havin’ hisself a real hog killin’ time, but when Johnny sees one of them hornswogglin’ scalawags fixin’ to brace his brother and pull a black-eyed susan on him, Johnny looks blue at them and he wades right in….”
Clear as mud, eh?
One of the things a writer aims to do is create a world for the reader to immerse themselves in. After all, we don’t live in the 19th century wild West these days. We have to create that on the page. So a good writer thinks about how to evoke the world’s history, geography, languages, religions, economy and government; its weather, its societies, its peoples; its plants, its animals … and every other little detail of what makes that world feel real.
Most of the time, you don’t need but a tiny fraction of it to show the reader where they are and how everything fits together. A writer picks out some of these little details and lets them seep through naturally into the story, lets them sink into the background. Do it well, and you’ll bring the West to life.
One great way of doing this, is through how the characters speak and the language they use. You know Scott wouldn’t talk like that (points upwards), and nor would Murdoch: one’s from the East with his own dialect, and the other’s a middle class Scot, and both are well-educated. They’ll sound very different. Johnny might have some of this language, but perhaps not in such an exaggerated form. He hasn’t had the education of his father and brother, and will speak less formally than either.
But that little speech? I can see Jelly talking like that, in the vernacular of the country, where a unique collection of colourful idioms and phrases created a language that had a passing resemblance to English – if you had a dictionary and translator handy!
I wouldn’t write Jelly in quite this exaggerated fashion, but I certainly would sprinkle his speeches with some of those phrases, the same way I’d keep Scott’s voice educated and more formal, and let some of Murdoch’s lowland Scots seep through into his vocabulary.
To help with that, our Resources section here has a collection of 8 different glossaries of the words and terms used by cowboys in the west. If you’re a writer of western stories, or a reader who loves words and learning new ones, then take a look at the glossaries and enjoy the wonderful, imaginative, creative world of slang. It really is colourful and fun!
Dictionary of Americanisms (downloadable .pdf of a dictionary compiled in 1859. Lots of New England phrases and words)
Oh, and a dictionary of the phrases I used at the beginning? Here you are:
ace high – first class
black-eyed susan – a six-gun.
brace – confront with aggression
curly wolf – real tough, dangerous man
don’t care a continental – don’t give a damn
got the bulge – have the advantage
hair in the butter – a delicate situation
hog-killin’ time – a real good time
hornswoggle – cheat
juniper – derogatory term for an easterner or novice cowhand
look blue at – to look with displeasure or dissatisfaction
road agent – a robber, bandit, desperado
sand – guts, courage, toughness
scad – large quantities, plenty, an abundance
scalawag, scallywag – a mean, rotten, worthless, untrustworthy person
slog – a blow, a fight with the fists
Enjoy learning a new language!